Across the Years is a timed loop ultramarathon held annually in the Phoenix, Arizona area. The race spans the end of one year to the beginning of the next… hence the name. There are three options- a 24 hour, 48 hour, and 72 hour. When Shelly and I were planning our schedule, this event fit nicely. It would place us in Phoenix for the new year and would give me an opportunity to put up quite a few miles to help build my endurance base for the 2012 racing season.
Going into the race, my plan was to treat it like a big experiment. This would be a “B” race; I wouldn’t be “racing” it in the sense that I’d push hard to put up as many miles as possible. My goal was to experiment with as many variables as possible to help in future 100 milers. My overall strategy was aided by advice from Shelley V. and Rob… I decided to go relatively hard the first day, then do what I could over the next two.
Since the race spanned three days, I’d be camping out at the race site. The actual layout worked well. The race was held at the Dodgers and WhiteSox’ spring training complex in Glendale. We had ample room in the runner staging area. The course itself was a 1.05 mile loop consisting of mostly gravel with a short section of asphalt. There were two aid stations- the main tent with all the goodies and a secondary tent at the half way point. The secondary tent was minimally-stocked. Regardless, we had access to aid every half mile.
Shelly, Ty (2), and I arrived at the course about an hour before the start. I unloaded my tons of gear (clothes, food, sleeping bag, makeup… you know… the essentials.) As I was preparing for the race, I considered attempting to run it barefoot. The weather was great (high of 80°, low of about 36°.) The gravel wasn’t especially rough. Half of the course was covered in very loose, smooth gravel that was almost sand-like. After walking on part of the course, I decided to give it a shot.
The actual start was even more anti-climatic than most long ultras. The RD gave a one minute warning. People were more or less standing around the staging area. He gave a 30 second warning. Nobody moved. He started a countdown from 10… 9… 8… 7… a few people took a few steps toward the timing mat… 6… 5… 4… most of the people took a step toward the starting chute… 3… 2… 1… GO! FINALLY people started moving through the chute. Most laid-back start ever.
The first 10 miles clicked off quickly. I settled into a decent 11:00/mile “ultra pace.” I got a lot of looks for being barefoot, but no runners made conversation. I would stop about every five miles to stretch out, use my rolling pin to keep my legs loose, and do a few burpees (thanks for the idea, Shelley Viggiano!)
Once I got to 16, my feet were beginning to get sensitive from the rough section of gravel. I knew this was likely the end of the barefoot experiment, but I resisted for another 4 miles. The open air felt great and I wasn’t looking forward to slipping on shoes. At that time, the temps were pushing 80°.
I took a short break and devised a rotation for the shoes I brought. I am in the midst of ‘review” season, so I had a lot of shoe on-hand. I decided to go with a pair of Merrell Road Gloves, Stem Origins, New Balance Minimus Zero Roads, Vibram SeeYas, and Merrell Bare Access. Later in the race I also added a pair of original Luna huaraches and Altra Adams… and 2 more miles barefoot.
The rest of the first day was rather uneventful. Once I slipped on shoes, many people started asking me about barefoot running. Several people did some barefoot running, and almost all owned at least one pair of minimal shoes.
By sunset, I had about 35-40 miles. The pace seemed conservative, but the prospect of running for another 62+ hours seemed a little daunting. I enjoyed a beautiful desert sunset, then set out to reach 50 miles by 9pm- the 12 hour mark.
About the only bad thing from this stretch was an unfortunate run-in with some refried beans rolled up in tortillas. They tasted AMAZING, but gave me some very active bowels. Three bean burritos consumed in about 30 minutes = 4 ours of stopping by porta-potties every lap. I started to worry about the dreaded “ass-chafe” from the constant wiping…
The mileage from 9pm on was decidedly slower. Okay… I was walking. Shit began to get real. I was tired, cold, and beginning to get a good case of the “ultra hurts” that was accentuated by the flat roads. I decided sleep was in order. At midnight, I retired to my tent. The plan was to experiment with various sleep periods in 90 minute increments.
Why 90 minutes? It the average length of a sleep cycle which allows us to go through all the stages of sleep and wake up with the heavy “I need more sleep” feeling. I wanted to see if 90 minutes would be enough to dissipate the neurotransmitters that make us sleepy. In other words, what’s the least I can sleep and still keep running?
FYI- if napping, sleep less than 20 minutes or in increments of 90 minutes. When you awake, you’ll come form a shallow stage of sleep.
Anyway, I woke up at 1:30am. I was fairly cold even though I was wearing four layers of clothing and was buried in my sleeping bag. I reluctantly crawled out of the sleeping bag and was immediately slapped in the face by a wall of bitter coldness. At least it felt like bitter cold relative to the upper 70’s temps of the previous day. Yes, I’m a cold weather pussy. I admit it.
I briefly considered going back to bed, but curiosity forced me out to the course. I think I may have walked about six laps before succumbing to sleepiness. The track was nearly empty. A few people were still running; the rest that weren’t sleeping or warming up in the medical tent were walking.
Ninety minutes… definitely not enough sleep. I hit the sack at 3am for another 90 minute cycle. I don’t remember actually crawling into the sleeping bag.
Three AM in a timed event is strange. There were even fewer people on the track. I stopped by the med tent to warm up and was shocked. Bodies were strewn everywhere as people tried to catch a little sleep in the heated tent. I think I counted 12 people.
These laps were pretty slow. I was walking the entire time in an attempt to conserve energy. The first day hadn’t yet come to a close, which seemed unfathomable at that point.
The one lone interesting event came about as I was about 1/4 mile past the start line. In the darkness, I saw a silhouette of a person appearing to be stretching off to the side of the course. As I got closer, I realized it was a woman and she was urinating! In a trail race, this wouldn’t be a news-worthy event. In this race, there were porta-potties every quarter mile. My sleep-deprived mind couldn’t process a rationale before she spotted me, finished up, and hopped back on the path.
“I hope that didn’t offend you too bad!”
“Are you kidding? That’s an essential ultrarunner skill… I assume you’re a trail runner?”
I can’t give the rest of the conversation as it would “out” her identity (the Dodgers might not like that someone was pissing on their landscaping), but we talked for several more laps.
I continued to walk until Shelly arrived that morning. I think the second wave of 24 hour runners started… there was a sudden surge of fresh-looking people. It was a little demoralizing to repeatedly see them zipping by.
Shelly brought our son Reese. I was happy to see them… until I realized Reese was in an “I’m bored and don’t want to be here” mood. The next few hours were spent dealing with the growing heat, limping around the course, and intermittently napping in the shade behind my tent. Reese was being an annoying pain in the ass and I was crabby. It wasn’t cool. After Shelly left, I took a self-assessment and concluded I was dehydrated. Walking in the heat of the desert sun was deceptive. I assumed I wasn’t sweating because my pace was too slow. The sweat was just evaporating. Lesson learned.
During my “rejuvenated walking” I started talking to an older guy also doing the 72 hour. We chatted about this and that. He told me about his son who raced cars. I told him about our nomadic barefoot running adventures. At some point I asked him if he ran this race before. he said he had run all of the different times in the past; it was one of his favorite events. I asked if he had advice- “Don’t stop moving.” Fair enough. Since he ran this event years ago, I asked him about other ultras he ran in the past. I have a fascination with the “golden age” of ultras. Eventually he admitted he’d run quite a few ultras. When I asked for the number, his response shocked me- “Somewhere around 5 or 6… hundred.”
At that point, I started digging for information like a TMZ reporter at a Lindsy Lohan birthday party. Okay, maybe that analogy doesn’t work. Anyway, he talked about various events, training plans, etc. He shared some good tips. He also mentioned winning a few races. When pressed, he admitted he had won quite a few races “back in the day.” I realized I didn’t know his name, so I asked. Ray Krolewicz. I’m not much of an ultra historian, but I did recognize his name as a legendary ultrarunner in the 80’s and 90’s. Damn this event is cool!
In our rambling conversation, he asked where I was from. When I told him Cheboygan, Michigan, his face lit up. He asked if I knew Roy Pirrung. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but not recognizable as a Cheboyganite. Ray then went on to tease me for the next two laps. Every ultra vet we passed was treated to an exchange that went something like this:
“Hey Bill, when I tell you this you’re going to shit your pants! This guy is from Cheboygan. And he doesn’t know Roy Pirrung!“
Eventually I figured out Roy Pirrung was from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, not Cheboygan, Michigan. Ray forgave me a little, but still teased me razzed me for not knowing my ultra history.
In a bizarre twist, I just finished crewing and pacing Shelly at the Bandera 100k (which she finished in 18:39… she kicked ass!) I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman at one of the aid stations while waiting for Shelly. We talked about all kinds of ultra topics. As we were about to part, I asked him for his name- it was Roy Pirrung! What are the chances?
Between these exchanges, Ray told more stories and answered more questions. Here are the highlights:
- In response to how ultras have changed: “Back in the day, everyone competed. People didn’t run these races just to finish or look at the mountains. They ran to win. If you couldn’t finish a 100 under 24 hours, you stayed home.”
- On trail versus road running: “I don’t like to run in the mountains… you’re surrounded by beauty and spend the time looking at your feet. Run fast on roads, take your time on the trails.”
- He saw my Western States tat and asked when I ran it and what time. I told him this year, 23:40ish. My inferiority complex kicked in and I told him some of my friends give me crap because I did it in a year where a lot of people posted fast times. His response: “If anyone gives you shit, you tell them Ray Krolewicz said “FUCK YOU!!”” That made me laugh.
- On why he still runs ultras: “I just do this for fun. I just come out here for some exercise and flirt with the girls.” Note- he put up 203 miles over the 72 hours. Fun indeed.
- He is a teacher, so we talked about our craft, too. I wish I would have had more time to chat about this, but I needed a break.
After the Ray conversation, I settled into a good walking routine. Around this time, I saw my friend Buzz. He had originally planned on running the 24 hour on the last day, too, but hurt his leg. His wife Sarah would be taking his place. More on that later.
After one lap, somebody yelled to me using my name. I was in a zone and didn’t process what they said, but they took my picture. The look of non-recognition on my face must have been obvious- it was Robert Shackleford (Shacky) and Vanessa Rodriguez. They were running the 24 hour on the last day. It was great to see them again, and I stopped to chat for awhile. I also saw Patrick Sweeney (also running the last day) moments later. We chatted for awhile, then I hit the course for a few more laps.
As the sun set and the temps dropped, the cold seemed even more invasive than the previous night. I resolved to make it to mile 90 then I’d try sleeping again. I was supposed to have a beer with Pat before I hit the sack, but I was too exhausted. I decided to to to bed immediately after the 90 mile lap at about 9pm… the half way point for the event.
The plan was to try sleeping for a six hour block. Shelly brought me some extra blankets, which helped immensely. Sleep was tough as it was nearly impossible to find a comfortable position. I finally settled on the fetal position and drifted off…
About an hour later, I awoke to a weird sensation. I felt wet. Extremely wet. My first thought- Did I piss myself? Why was my head wet? Did the sleeping bag act like a giant wick? I couldn’t bring myself to move from the fetal position to fully assess the situation… I just laid there curled up in a humiliating ball despair contemplating what to do next. I was wearing almost all of my clothes, so changing wasn’t an option. I was more that 12 hours away from the sunlight that would dry me out. And I was now freezing.
About three minutes, Oom’s Razor kicked in. I realized the “piss theory” had a better explanation- night sweats. OHHHHH… that’s a relief. I was still cold and all of my clothes were soaked, but I just fell back asleep. I’m sure everything will work out in the morning.
When my alarm went off at 3am, I was dry. I have no idea how that happened, but I just rolled with it. It took me 30 minutes to get my shoes on and get out to the course. I spent the next few hours alternating between walking a lap and warming up in the med tent. During one of these laps, I stopped in the one heated bathroom in the baseball facilities. Ray was lying on the floor sleeping and the toilet was close to overflowing. Hmmm… that could be a disaster. Since the toilet wasn’t overflowing, I decided to leave the scene.
Throughout the entire event, I tried to consume about 100-150 calories per lap. This should prevent any glycogen-depleted crashes. The theory worked well, at no point during the 72 hours did I experience a food-related bonk. The food choices available were typical ultra fare- candy, chips, soda, Gatorade, water, PB & J, salted potatoes, etc. About once every four hours, the main aid station would prepare hot food. The selection included grilled cheese, egg rolls, lasagna, soup, and a few other things I don’t really remember.
The miles ticked away slowly, but I did make it to 100 miles. I added a stop in the porta-potties on each lap just to get off my feet every half mile. I felt pretty pathetic. when I reached 100, I sat down and rested until Shelly arrived. She got there early to watch Shacky, Vanessa, Sarah, and Pat start their race.
After the next wave started, I had Shelly drive me to the locker rooms a few hundred yards from the course. A quick shower helped rejuvenate me. The plan was to kick back and relax for an hour or so, eat some substantial food, then get back at it. Around that time, I set a goal for 120 miles… which would require a measly 20 miles in 24 hours. What can I say, I have low expectations.
After the shower, Shelly and I were standing around watching the new wave of runners hammering out some fast laps. I knew I had to get back out there, but couldn’t muster up the motivation. I needed a boost. I half-jokingly turned to Shelly and said “Wanna hit it?” She just laughed. More significantly, she didn’t say no.
A few minutes later, I went to the tent to change into my last set of clean “heat running gear”- a pair of Brooks Infinity 3 shorts and a long-sleeve white tech shirt. Shelly joined me in the tent. I worked my magic. It was hot.
So thirty seconds later, I felt like a new man. I was ready to jump on the course and begin my final day.
Sidebar- sexual activity releases a cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones, including testosterone, epinepherine and norepinepherine (adrenaline), endorphines (natural pain killers), etc. The effect on physical activity is resoundingly positive… assuming you haven’t been circling a mile loop for 48 hours.
When I hit the course, I had an incredible boost… for about 400 meters. My pace soon returned to the slow walk it was earlier in the morning. It hurt just as much. At least I was still moving.
The last full day was uneventful. At different points, I busted out my Sport Kilt and Family Guy PJ pants. I also walked another two laps barefoot and a few more in Lunas. Shacky had aggravated a prior injury, and was slowing. We decided to go to the CVS pharmacy nearby and get some beer. You know, to enhance performance. Shelly was leaving around the same time, so we said our goodbyes for the night. I’d miss ringing in the New Year with her, but we never stay up that late anyway.
Shacky and I had a beer and watched Vanessa, her sister Eli, and their friend Carlos put up some impressive mileage. Pat was doing well, but also had a prior injury. The injury caused him to compensate and he developed a shin splint. We was close to joining us for beer.
My memories of the exact order of events is a little sketchy for some reason. At some point, Pat busted out his wooded ball to flick around the course Tarahumara style. I thought I was immobilized by pain, but the dynamic movement of chasing and flicking the ball loosened me up quite a bit. We set a goal of doing one lap under 25 minutes. It went pretty well with only a few small “incidents.” Keeping the ball out of the ponds was a challenge; keeping the ball out of the paths of other runners was a greater challenge. A handful of people joined us and kicked the ball if it entered their quadrant (old hacky sack term.) We ended up finishing the lap in something like 23 minutes and some change.
I felt great! I was ready to run a few laps… until I tried to run. The dynamic jumping around was relatively easy. Using my “road running gait was even more difficult than before the game. I threw in the towel for the night and plopped down in a camp chair and drank beer until New Years. My official total at that point: 108 miles. One twenty would probably be impossible.
The evening was spent BSing about a variety of topics I don’t remember… I think I may have drank more beers than I originally estimated. Buzz joined us for awhile while Sarah ran a few more laps. They live nearby and had went home for while. Her longest run up to that point had been 11 miles- she was training for a half marathon in a few weeks. By the time all of us stopped, Vanessa, her sister, maybe Shacky, and Sarah had run farther than they ever had before. When I finally went to bed at about 12:02, I didn’t even set my alarm.
I woke up at three, felt incredibly dehydrated and sore, drank some water, then went back to bed.
I woke up at 5, had to take a leak, and weighed my options. I felt like garbage. My mouth was dry and gritty as if I had been eating sand. Even my contacts were dried up… in my eyes. It was about 300 meters to one set of bathrooms and about 400 to another. I decided if I had to walk that far, I might as well get a full lap in. I had been wearing my Merrell Bare Access shoes for the last 70 miles or so, but opted for the slipper-like comfort of the Stem Origins over a pair of thick thermal socks.
The first few steps were agony, but the feeling quickly faded. By the time I got to the porta-potties, I was feeling okay. I knew I had to do some serious rehydration, so I downed three cups of Gatorade at the secondary aid station. The lap was freezing cold, so I stopped by the med tent to warm up. I think every 48 and 72 hour runner was in the tent at that time. After 60ish hours we developed a shared-agony bond. I warmed up for a few minutes then went back out.
After seven or so laps, I was ready to call it quits. I stopped at the start line to look at my mileage totals (they were displayed on a TV screen as you passed over the timing mat.) I needed three laps to reach the 200k mark. I’m not quite sure what happened, but my inner-competitiveness kicked in. For the first time since the race started, I felt close enough to the finish to redline. I started running. The backs of my knees were killing me- this was obviously the weakest link in my “road running’ musculature. I ignored the pain and it soon went away.
The first lap was a decent 13:38 (1.05 miles). I started stripping off my “night running” layers.
The second was a little faster at 11:32. More clothes came off.
By the third lap, I wasn’t feeling any pain. I was down to a sweatshirt, BI3’s, and some thermal socks. Time: 9:15.
At this point, I decided to stop. I hit 200k. I had about 30 minutes left and planned on joining Shacky’s crew to hang out for awhile before the awards ceremony. When I got to the start line, I noticed I only needed two more laps to reach 127 miles… a hundred miler plus a marathon. Why not?
I felt this one. Fatigue was setting in. I was feeling a weird popping sensation in both feet. I ignored what should have been a warning sign to stop and continued running. Lap time: 10:19.
When I crossed the timing mat, I knew this was going to be my last lap of the day. I wanted it to be my fastest of the event. I let my entire body relax and focused on my form… efficient and smooth. I ranged from mid-eights to a nine minute pace. As I crossed the 1/2 mile timing mat, I actively started trying to speed up. I reached 7:59 at one point. I knew I had more. As I rounded the last corner, I relaxed even more. I wanted sub-7.
I looked down at my Garmin 20 meters from the finish… 6:56. I did it! I coasted through the chute, slowed to a walk, then proceeded with a few dry heaves.
My friends put up some pretty impressive results: Vanessa passed the 100k mark, Sarah made it to 42 (after her previous long run of 11 miles), Eli made it to 43 miles, and Shacky and Pat both made it well past 40 miles despite injuries. I ended up tied for 25th place (out of about 49.) I was hoping for more mileage but did okay relative to the field.
After the race, we hobbled over to the spring training stadium for the awards ceremony. It was cool; many people did some amazing feats.
- Joe Fejes won the 72 hour with 280 miles; Charlotte Vasashelyi won overall woman with 227 miles.
- Ed Ettinghausen racked up 233 miles despite stopping for over eight hours on day 2 because of a suspected stress fracture.
- Betty Smith ran 81 miles in her first 48 hour while wearing a pair of VivoBarefoots. Oh, she’s 71 years old.
- Tony Nguyen finished his 52nd marathon in 52 weeks on the first 24 hour cycle.
- Several people, including Tracy Thomas (we talked for awhile about minimalist shoes) reached 1,000 and 1,500 lifetime Across the Years mileage.
I learned quite a few lessons at this race, which is exactly what I hoped. Here area few
- 72 hour events are deceptively difficult, mileage becomes exponentially difficult to rack up as time passes. Twenty five miles is easy. Fifty is difficult. A hundred is a feat. One fifty and up puts you in a unique class. Two hundred and above takes something most of us don’t have.
- I can do pretty good with 3 hours of sleep, 6 is the most I need. If future 100s, this info will come in handy.
- Walking in the desert dehydrates you A LOT.
- Cold weather is difficult to manage when coupled with long-distance running.
- Cushioned shoes aren’t necessarily bad.
- Other people’s form wasn’t too bad- many were heel striking, but keeping the foot landing under their center of gravity.
- People that put up high mileage either run high mileage in training OR a lot of ultras (like every weekend.)
- Efficiency is key to this type of event. Every wasted movement both on and off the course will reduce your mileage potential.
- Consuming a little bit of food frequently time eliminates lows indefinitely.
- Flat ground beats me up. It’s a completely different gait from my normal trail running-based training (different muscles used.)
- Bean burritos are not good. Well, they taste good. They’re just go through me quickly.
I expected to hate this event, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was an extremely difficult race for entirely different reasons than 100s. It was fun, but in a masochistic sort of way. If it works out schedule-wise, I think I’ll be back next year. I would like to bump it up to an “A” race, do some dedicated training, develop a good race strategy, and see what kind of mileage I’d be capable of putting up. Who knows, I might be able to break 130.