Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Race Report: North Coast 24 Hour Endurance Run

Satuday, September 17 saw the start of the 3rd annual North Coast 24 Hour Endurance Run in Cleveland, which for the third year hosted the USATF 24 hour national championship. It's a very well-done event put on by Race Director Dan Horvath and his mighty team of volunteers, aid station workers, the medical team once again headed by Dr. Andy Lovy, and the timing system this year by Rick McNulty of the New Jersey Trail Series.

The excellent organization of the race, the near-perfect course of 0.90075 miles, and the weather which has been excellent each year here so far all helped to sell out the 200 available spots and to draw many of the best and potentially best 24-hour runners in the country and beyond. The top two male and female finishers would also be guaranteed an invitation to run for the U.S. 24 hour team at the 2012 World Championships in Poland in September (provided they meet minimum mileage requirements, which would prove to be the case).

For myself, I had high hopes for a good race. After a very big spring, I had a disastrous 24-hour race in Philadelphia in July, and I was really hoping for a big race which I hoped might include some of the following: a spot on the team to Poland; a win and a second national championship (having won in 2009); beating my PR of 154 miles set way back in 2007; beating the masters record of just under 158 miles set by John Geesler (I'd hate to do that to John again - almost); a milestone of 160 miles; and I was also holding out hope for the remote possibility of beating Scott Jurek's American Record of 165.67 miles. But I was feeeling in good shape physically and mentally, and I was ready to get to work.

I flew to Cleveland, landing at midday, made my way to the Days Inn in Lakewood and waited for Byron Lane, who I would room with, to arrive. Ultrarunners in the New York area don't need to be told about the history of Byron and me, but suffice it to say we've gone head-to-head many times and had many close races and in the process have become good friends. We'd roomed together at the national championships in 2008 (in McKinney, TX) when Byron won the title and 2009 (Cleveland) when I won, so I guess this was a good sign. We had a pre-race dinner at Players restaurant, which Deb Horn had arranged, getting a ride with Jackie Choi and Jackie Ong, and meeting a lot of the other runners, and sitting across the table from Howard Nippert, the USATF rep, it was nice to get a chance to chat with him for a while.

Jackie, Byron, Kino and I arrived at the race about an hour before the start and began setting up. Byron and I shared a two-canopy complex in Tent City with Deb Horn, Mike Henze, Roy Pirrung and John Geesler. The race was full with the top runners, besides the above, including last year's winners Serge Arbona and Connie Gardner, previous record holder Mark Godale, Zack Gingerich, Jamie Donaldson, Anna Piskorska, Lisa Bliss, and many other excellent runners with a lot of potential. Looking down the entrant list, I was thinking there could be 50 runners over 100 miles and possibly as many as 10 over 140!

I'd been asked about my chances of winning or how many miles I thought I'd run. They have to know I'd never answer those questions! At least not before the race. I honestly wasn't worrying about winning, since I can't worry too much about competition until late in the race. I did set as my mileage goal a very ambitious 160 miles, and I mapped out my race and pacing chart accordingly. It was ambitious, but possible I thought, and what better time to try, with good weather and good physical condition? I'd actually shot for this a few times before, and at least I knew if it wasn't going to happen I'd be able to back off before I killed myself, and still have a good total.

So my goal meant starting out at about 7:00 per lap, or about 7:45 per mile, which I had actually done the previous years also. Throughout the race I'd keep track of my pace by my lap splits, or actually by my 8-lap splits. This is partly for the practical reason that my watch can only count up to 30 laps, and also by grouping the laps like this it makes the race seem more manageable. By the end of the first lap I found myself in the lead with Zack Gingerich, and we were chatting a bit. The laps went by mostly uneventfully. There was a fairly decent breeze from the east, which was then at our backs heading back to the start, causing a noticeable temperature difference on the different parts of the course. But I was able to stay on the pace I had set for myself longer than in previous years, so I was feeling very optimistic at this point. And I was still in the lead, although Mark Godale was closing in on me, only a lap behind as we neared the middle of the race. But it was still too early to worry about competition, I just wanted to stay on my own pace. After a few hours with Mark a lap behind me and waiting for him to pass me by, I eventually saw him stretch out on the grass, and later do some walking, so it looked like he was slowing down. But I will say that even when he was close behind me, his sizeable and enthusiastic crew team would cheer for me as I went by, so a big thank you to them!

I hit 50 miles (56 laps) in a swift 6:43, and was still feeling really good. After darkness came I slowed down more than I would have liked, I think partly because portions of the course were pretty dimly lit and I wasn't totally sure of my footing, especially at one spot where there's a little bump. It was nothing in daylight, but at night I kept hitting it wrong, throwing me off my stride and causing cursing every time! Many runners had headlamps, and even though I'd run this race twice before with no problem, and even though I hate wearing one, a headlamp might have been a good idea. Still, I hit the 100 mile mark (112 laps) in 14:38, which I think is my best 100-mile performance ever (my Brive split might have been faster but I'm not sure of that split). And actually it's probably more like 14:30, since we reach exactly 100 miles very soon after 111 laps. By this time I had I think five laps on Mark and about nine on the other men's leaders, who included German runner Kai Horschig and Jonathan Savage, who I'd chatted with briefly early in the race, and I knew had had a good 24 previously but I didn't know what he might be capable of. Serge and his friend Christian Creutzer were in the top five earlier, but were falling back a bit by this time.

On the women's side, the race had been led at times by Anna Piskorska, Jamie Donaldson and Connie Gardner, but now it looked like Connie had a good grip on her race, and was not too far behind me. Deb Horn was still moving very steady as always, and Lisa Bliss was moving up the leader chart.

In the later hours of the race, I'd adjusted my goals. 160 miles was not going to happen, and neither was the masters record of 158 miles. Beating my PR was still a possibility, but with my achilles starting to feel the strain, I would be happy just to keep moving and get the win, and 150 miles if I stayed steady. Meanwhile, I was enjoying the company of the other runners. Even though I don't talk much during a race, especially as the race goes on, I received a lot of encouragement during those nighttime hours, and I tried to give encouragement back as much as I was able. A special mention to David Corfman and Tammy Massie who gave nice words every time I saw them, and to Bonnie Busch, who encouraged me during my multiple breakdowns last year and who was still encouraging now when I wasn't suffering as much. Kino was great to watch with his patriotic outlook and his bursts of energy during the night, and Jackie Choi looked great in her fedora.

In the end I finished first with 153.37 miles, just a mile short of a PR, but a total I'm very happy with. Jonathan Savage finished strong and came away with a second place and over 146 miles, qualifying for next year's team also. Kai Horschig finished a close third with 145.5 miles, but is not a USATF member and can't run on the U.S. team. Harvey Lewis finished third with 140 and Byron finished fifth with 133 miles, a PR for him by quite a bit, which I was very happy to see! Connie won the women's race, and came just a mile short of Sue Ellen Trapp's American record, finishing fourth overall with 144 miles. That's her third time over 140 miles that comes to my mind, it's possible she's done more. Deb stayed strong for second place with a new PR of 131 miles! She's come very close to the 130-mile mark a few times before, so I was very happy for her also! So she'll be joining us in Poland as well. Lisa ran an amazing race and got third with just short of 126, Laura Bleakley was fourth with 112 and Bonnie was fifth with 108.

One other trivia note, this was my third time over 150 miles in a 24-hour race, which I thought put me in good company with the likes of Roy Pirrung and John Geesler, but they told me they'd only gone over 150 twice, and I might actually be the first American to get 150 three times! I'll hace to look into that!

In any case, it was a great experience overall, I made a lot more new friends, and a lot of people had great experiences as well. Five runners broke 140, and 40 runners got over 100 miles! My thanks to Dan Horvath, Joe Jurczyk, all the volunteers, aid station workers, trash picker-uppers, all the people who made the race work, and to Rick McNulty of the New Jersey Trail Series for working and monitoring the timing station the entire race. And thanks to Deb for the use of her table, Chris for her help during the race, Jackie for the ride to the race, Lisa for the ride to the airport, Byron for not snoring, and all the runners for creating such an amazing community that make it such a pleasure to run ultras.

Pictures: 1. Me at home with my trophy, t-shirt and one of the shoes that got me there (shoe company prefers to remain anonymous); 2. Connie and I after the race; 3. Current and former 48-hour record holders - me, John Geesler, Roy Pirrung, Ray Krolewicz; 4. Tamra Jones and Shannon McGinn; 5. Jackie Choi in her fedora