Wednesday, December 10, 2008

So near . . . and yet so far

You rarely hear of anyone running for 24 hours barefooted. Not that it hasn’t been done, mind you. There are at least two others that I know of, a German man and a Dutch woman. Also, I’m sure the odd indigenous person has had a go. But it’s only we Westerners that make a song and dance about the feat.

This report is about my attempt to do so, in the 11th Sri Chinmoy New Zealand 24-hour Championship held on 22-23 November, 2008. It was my first real ultramarathon, but I was confident of completing the course. In the decade I've been running barefoot, I've run 3 marathons, walked the length of New Zealand (2200 km), and, in shoes, completed the Otago Rail Trail (150 km) in 35 hours. The only question was what pace to set, and what goal to aim for. From Barefoot Ken’s website, I’d learned that the men’s world record was 145 km, and the women’s (and overall record) 155 km. To me that seemed doable.

On race day, after having flown up to Auckland from New Zealand, I was driven to the venue by a cousin. I’d only seen Ric a couple of times in the three decades since we’d cycled from Dunedin and Queenstown and back, a distance of 600 kilometres, in the mid 1970s. All Ric had to do was enter the location ‘Sovereign Stadium’ into his global route-finding gadget, and we navigated effortlessly over to the North Shore from his Western Springs home. Would my event go as smoothly, I wondered?

The run was held on a proper 400-metre track that boasts the same surface as that at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. When we arrived, the tents, flags and inspirational billboards were already up, and a few dozen people were quietly milling around. The atmosphere was low key yet professional. In the hour before the start Ric filled a plastic basin with water for me to dip my feet in whenever I felt the need, and I did a circuit of the track clearing away small stones. Ric then headed off for work, promising to return in the afternoon, and for the finale the next morning. I wandered onto the infield and pinned a cloth to the back of my cap to protect my neck from the sun.

The weather was fine, though the outlook was for clouds and maybe a little rain tomorrow. As things transpired, it would remain sunny all day; my skin would peel next week as a result. A strong wind built up quite early, but was only a consideration around one curve. I would take off my headwear in case it blew off. The best conditions were during the night, when the weather grew balmy (you miss that in Dunedin). Next morning it would become somewhat chilly and breezy—more like home—but overall I can’t complain or make meteorological excuses.

Every runner was then introduced to his or her human lap counter. A fellow called John promised to make eye-contact and to call out whenever I passed. To double check, other pairs of eyes recorded numbers as people passed, so we had to make sure to keep them clearly visible. Also, at the starting mark a large digital clock showed elapsed time. A large board featuring everyone’s name would be updated every hour with distances run to the nearest kilometer. At the two-hundred metre mark, a refreshment tent provided drinks and food throughout the day. I’d expected a Port-a-loo beside the track, but the nearest toilets were in a building several yards away across a patch of rough (to my feet) concrete. I reckoned each visit would cost me three minutes, so I planned to minimize the number of trips.

I’d wanted to remain anonymous—maybe wear some shoes before the start and kick them off with the gun, but that hope was scuttled. The race organizer spent 15 minutes before the start introducing all of the competitors to the spectators, the support crews, and each other. For me, that was a first. I’ve taken part in many races and runs over the years, but I’ve never experienced such a personal element. I guess it helps when the numbers are lower. On the track at any time there would only ever be a maximum of thirty or so entrants. The 24-hour event would be run concurrently with 12-hour and 6-hour shorter options, and for the last 12 hours a teams race would be held. It was ‘go as you please’, and there were even walkers in the field. Ten men were taking part in the all day race, and six women.

When the gun went off, I immediately shot, not to the front, but to the rear. I had no firm plan, as I wasn’t sure whether my soles or my muscles would hold up. I decided to walk and jog alternate laps and keep that up for as long as it felt right. That meant walking the very first round. This, it turns out, is in line with conventional thinking in ultra circles. See Stu Mittleman’s book Slow Burn.

For maybe three hours I stuck to my pattern. It took me a few seconds over 4 minutes per 400 metres when walking, and a little under 2:30 jogging. But it was difficult to concentrate. I’d forget to check the digital clock, the time wouldn’t register, or I wouldn’t recall by the time I next passed around. And as the day wore on my powers of concentration would only deteriorate.
Trying to look back, the race is a blur. Throughout I took care to remain in the present, but the instant that I sat down at 143.059 kilometres, time telescoped with a ‘whoosh’. All of a sudden I realized that the day I’d spent in continual motion had suddenly shrunk, like I’d folded it up and put it in my pocket. At that point it honestly felt as if the race had lasted no more than an hour. The message I took from that was that I’d better scribble down my recollections before they evaporated for good.

Such weird scenes inside the goldmine! Was it the chanting (of Indian bhajans)? Was it the food (electrolytes and carbohydrates)? Was it having to run endlessly in circles? All I know is that from almost the start it was hard to keep track of time and distance, what to say of calculations involving the two. Subtracting? With effort. Division? Forget it! I’d note the digits as I padded past, but would forget them by the time I next went by, or would get distracted and have to catch the numbers two or three laps on (and then have to divide). Oof!

But, according to the final tally, I jog-walked, on average, almost exactly 6 kilometres per hour. In the first three or hour hours I built up a buffer of four or five. I mostly walked after that as smartly as I could. If I strained slightly, I lost just a few seconds every lap off the 6 km/h pace. I tried to calculate just how many hours it would take for the extra to bleed away, but to no avail. As Spock would say, “That does not compute.”

Here’s my best stab at what went on: After jogging and walking alternate laps for 2 hours, or maybe 3, I then reduced the running I did to one lap in three (I couldn’t say how long for), averaging 6 km/h from then on until evening.

Ric turned up just before 5 p.m. I know, because it was the second time we all changed direction. Every four hours or so, we’d double back around a cone and go from clockwise to counter. That gave us the chance to match faces with backsides. Ric kindly set up a picnic table for my gear so I wouldn’t have to bend down. He searched through my bag of gear for the tights that I hadn’t been able to find on my own. I needed to change, as the shorts (and underwear) I’d started out in had begun to chafe. With a few lengths of string he made it possible for me to fasten my number so as to be able to change tops without unpinning and re-pinning. Much appreciated!

By the halfway stage I was still 5 km up. I believe that for the next several hours I never ran, but I never stopped walking either. Others had set up tents where they were able to rest for an hour or so. I didn’t want to expose myself to that temptation. Nevertheless, I entered a rather somnambulistic state. My eyes I kept closed except for one narrow slit. I was able to respond to each “Gotcha William” with a wave of my hand, but to all intents and purposes I was dreaming. I noted the cumulative distance increase, but the numbers meant nothing. I never stopped to consider whether I was still on track. I was half of a mind to call a halt when the half-day people stopped, but had prepared against that temptation. I concentrated very hard on getting at least a couple more hours under my belt. Reaching fourteen hours, it seemed to me as if I was almost there. Usually as it gets dark it becomes psychologically difficult to continue during the night. But the stadium lights were switched on, and it made a huge difference. There were always spectators around. The place was always humming. Gradually the quips about my bare feet grew less as I kept holding up. People saw that this man meant business!

Suddenly, at two a.m. (after 17 hours) I came wide awake. Don’t know how that happened, but all of a sudden I decided to mix in a little running. I’d been losing ground despite walking quickly. My thighs were starting to feel it. I would reduce my walking speed but try to resume running a little to keep up the average. Lo and behold, my tank was full!

When I tried to put on the gas . . . it was easy. Wow! This was fun! I powered down each home straight, and would then walk the rest of the lap. The body felt fresh and energized—had it been that cup of coffee I’d asked for? The muscles were silken. I moved fluidly and gracefully, better than any man or woman taking part. I even did a lap at a time, or two, without slowing, until I realized that it would be better to eke out this surge for as long as it lasted. Truly, I was confident at that time of a negative split and that the record was in the bag.

This period lasted for perhaps three hours. I took a stretch every hour or so—a modified sequence of yoga asanas that I instinctively strung together as a set. But after having done everything right, I then psyched myself out. It was the Mathematics. I couldn’t handle it by then. I called out and asked the lap counters, but beyond being informed of the elapsed times and distances, I didn’t learn what I needed to know: the speed at which I would have to run to reach my 146 kilometre goal.

I believe that by the 20-hour mark I’d covered 122 km. So I was still two kilometers up. But by the time that that information was posted, there were three-and-three-quarter hours left to trot, and for me it was an impossible task to work out what speed I had to maintain. The answer that I came up with was wrong. I divided the remaining 24 km by 2 (instead of 2.75). Travelling 12 km per hour was obviously an impossible ask. I decided I was tired. I decided to stop.

It felt great to lie on the grass and take a rest. I went through my stretches. We’d been told that massages were available throughout the race, and I set off in search. Failing to locate anyone, I returned to the track and lay down again. Whether I persisted and finished up 20 km short of the record or 10 made no difference to me. I might as well recover. However, it was too chilly to sleep. Why not keep warm by walking, walking slowly? After a quarter of an hour or so I got up. Staggering, I completed a lap . . . then another. Miraculously I began to speed up. I was able to jog once more. In a fashion.

Earlier, I’d caught myself drifting across and almost tripping on the inside rail. Had my drink been spiked? A fellow competitor passed me and called out a clue. “What’s happening to your form? You’re running crooked!” I was listing to the side. It had happened to me on another occasion—when I walked the Otago Rail Trail in one go. Then too, after about 20 hours, I started leaning. Then, I’d leant to the right. This time I was leaning to the left. It was like driving a car with the wheels badly aligned. When we changed direction for the last few hours, I had to fight the tendency for me to spiral outwards into lanes 2, 3, 4 and so forth. It must have looked awful. Though it didn’t feel bad, that’s where I probably lost the race. Probably I ought to have stopped for a stretch.

In the final couple of hours I pushed ahead for all I was worth, but to outward appearances like a seagull with an injured wing. I'm not absolutely certain, but I believe that my final hour was the fastest. To gain the record, I would have had to run another 10 kilometres. In any other set of circumstances I might have done so. As it was, I managed eight.

I flopped to the ground on the track next to my marker. Of course everyone finished at the same time. Ric had arrived with his oldest son to watch for the final hour. They got me a handful of goodies from the snack station. The women manning the ambulance wandered over too to check that I wasn’t too far gone. I then hobbled over for a quick shower (wheelchair access, lovely!) before the prize giving. It felt grand to sit on chairs and to see everyone’s efforts honored.

The winner (200 km) was Alex McKenzie. Second place was Lisa Tamati (192 km), the first New Zealand woman to have recently completed the Badwater ultra in the USA. I placed first in the 50-59 year age group, 4th male and 6th place overall. I enjoyed seeing former NZ greats Sandy Barwick and Richard Tout hand out the trophies.

And now for a brief postmortem . . .

I’d do it again. In a shot. I agree with Tom Osler who claims that an ultramarathon is less of a strain on the body than racing a marathon. For me, the experience was trance-like. I never experienced ‘pain’. I was never bored, and time never dragged. The pace was not an issue, neither was energy depletion. Nevertheless, it was tough, and by the time I was through I knew I'd been through a hard day’s night. A friend I told about this sensation replied that it sounded to her like the phenomenon that happens during the labour of childbirth.

But next time I’ll wear my own watch (I actually had it with me but removed it when I spotted the electronic clock—and then I never though of wasting the few seconds it would take to retrieve it). I’ll copy my race schedule on a card and maybe laminate it. I’m thinking 7 km/h, which would bring me to over 100 miles (161 km). If I could find a lap counter that I could click each time round that would help, although I could get into difficulties if I forgot to use it consistently. My clunky walkman radio didn’t function very well, so I listened to only one song on the radio. I had a paperback with me, but it was a bad read. I’ll choose my reading matter more wisely in the future!

Also, I’ll drink from a collection of my own (small) water bottles. Though I tried to recycle the Styrofoam cups that I used, I must have used up more than a hundred. That guilt doesn’t sit nicely with me. As for toilet access, I ought to have left my sandals at the edge of the track and used them to get across. Alternatively, if I set up a tent with a bottle inside that would save me at least a minute every four hours. Such concerns come with the territory of the ultramarathoner.

Forgive me with listing all the minutiae, but I’ll use this article myself when preparing for 2009. To continue, I’ll make sure to take stretch breaks regularly (hamstrings, calf muscles and the 3-min exercise set of six) say five minutes every two hours, and from earlier on. I’m sure that the time invested there will be more than paid back. That will help with breaking up the whole into bitable chunks. Next time I’ll push on jogging for longer. I’ll have a schedule that will get me to try a jog every so often instead of allowing myself to merely walk for hours at a stretch. And if I walk, I won’t try to maintain 6 km/h; it only creates strain. My excuse is that this first time I had no idea about whether I could do the whole thing in any fashion whatsoever. I’d told myself that the ‘race’ wouldn’t start until the 12-hour mark, and so take things very quietly until then. Next time I know that there’ll be high and low periods, roughly when they will occur (near the beginning and then at the end of the night) and to how ride through them.

In terms of costume, I think I’ll wear my running tights from the start. My legs got sunburned during the day, and it was a real hassle trying to change into them from shorts when the latter started chafing. I’m going to work on fat-burning metabolism too. I really feel that it is necessary to move away from a sugar and carbohydrate emphasis.

Finally, I think I’ll risk bringing my wife. I worry that she might try to pull me out if she sees me starting to lean, but I’m confident that she would keep me on target if I’m within reach of setting a world record. Really, a handler for an event like this is indispensable.

And finally a word of thanks to Ken Bob Saxton, the Barefoot Runner. I contacted him before the race, expressing a certain degree of nervousness. I’d never attempted such an unshod feat. I worried about my soles and the rest of my body. I’d come down with the ’flu a month before, and some of its symptoms were persisting. But Ken told me that the three words to remember were “Relax, relax, relax . . . oh, and have fun!” And that’s exactly what I did. All I could remember of the research I’d carried out was to run for no more than 10 minutes at a time, and then to walk, even if only for a few seconds, until the body signaled it was ready to do more. All I had to do was walk at an easy 5 km per hour pace, and to try and boost that to six with a little judicious running.

Nevertheless, there were times when I started to tense up and found myself in some mental distress. I would remember the words “Relax, relax, relax,” and I would stretch out my arms and inhale, accepting the intensity of the experience, rather than merely enduring it. I drew in the grain of the granular rubber surface and made it part of me. In truth, on a scale of 0 to 10, with ten the most severe, my muscles were never outside the 4 to 5 range, and my feet never worse than 3 or 4.

And hey, I did not get one blister!

Strangely, that night, 1000 miles away back in Dunedin, my wife had a dream where someone kept telling her to relax. Methinks I got was a little telepathy thing going there. Maybe that’s something to work on for next time. I could do with an edge.

Another report from the Otago Daily Times


kiwibare said...

William, great effort.
There had been some thought that our Racewalking Auckland club would put a team in for the 12 hour event, and if that had eventuated, you would have seen me also walking barefoot around the track.
We had another track event on the next day ( just a 5km!)which was a championship event for our club, which I wanted to focus on.
Maybe we can schedule events better for 2009, and I can join you for some of the walk /be a support person. You are a barefoot walking/running legend.


seangavor said...

Legendary. Thank You, professor Hadashi.