Monday, May 7, 2012

North Coast 24-Hour USATF Championships

I'll add more pictures as I get them.

Results: 147.9 miles/24 hours. National Champion. American Record. Personal Record by 10.8 miles. Hair—messy but manageable.

Race summary: My face got a little sunburned while I was running outside, and I ate the refried beans out of 9 burritos after nightfall.

Race report: I love ultramarathons, and the 24-hour is my favorite event. It almost makes me drool: a Pavlovian response. I wanted to give North Coast my undivided attention, but school has been crazy. So I lost a lot of sleep, and I tightened my transition times within my run-library-run-library daily operating schedule to get everything done.

I completed my course work by Tuesday, went home on Wednesday, and drove out to Cleveland with my dad on Thursday: Father-Daughter Bonding Road Trip 2012.

Me: I’m sorry I didn’t pick a normal hobby, Dad. 
Dad: Ultrarunning is normal. 
Me: I meant like sewing. 
Dad: Ultrarunning is normal. 

Chiropractor: Do any of your other children do distance running? 
Dad: No, they dislike it. My son has run 40 miles. 
Chiropractor: That counts as distance running. 

(It seems we’ve adjusted our standards.)

North Coast starts at 9—a late start—but I couldn’t sleep in because I was eager to begin. I had read the entry list and considered several of the women to be untouchables (in terms of their human excellence, not in the Indian caste system sense). So my intent was to break 140 miles and hang on as best as I could.

I had to run without my engagement ring, and it made me freak out from time to time, like in high school when you get your braces off. That first week, you keep thinking, “OMG!! Where are my teeth?!” They’re still there, just no longer wrapped in metal. That kept happening with my hand.

Just before the race, Debbie Horn introduced me to Tania Pacev, the American team manager for the world championships in Poland this upcoming September. We exchanged a few words. I pre-set my nutrition on a table, hugged my dad, and headed to the start line.

The gun went off, and I fell into an easy rhythm, chatting with whomever was in stride at the moment, taking in electrolytes early and often, and doing whatever I could to not think about the event. The worst part of an ultra is not the pain itself but the anticipation of the pain that is coming, so I mentally left the scene. See you guys, later. I’m a philosopher, and I’m going to hang out inside of my head for a while. My basketball coach used to hate when I did that (with my daily brace-face basketball-to-the-mouth incidents), but here it is a virtue. Every lap, Tania cautioned me to slow down and take it easier. I hated that. I slowed down, mostly because I have trouble disobeying authority figures, but I was afraid it would result in a weaker performance overall.

I always use my watch timer in these events (even though finish time is start time) because I’m not good at clock math after 100 miles. But sometimes, time stops because most watches won’t time for a full 24 hours. My last watch stopped at 20, probably because somebody at the Timex factory decided to draw the line there. You can do fitness for 20 hours, but then I’m cutting you off. You’ve had enough. And if you don’t expect this to happen, then when time stops, you’ll think something is wrong with Earth’s gravity. Try bearing that onus after 20 hours of running: The apocalypse is happening, and nobody else seems aware.

I waited for 12 hours before I allowed myself to take in any caffeine and 17 hours before I could use an ipod. Though there had been significant carnage among the leading men, all of the top women still looked strong. We are very different in our approaches, but one shared quality is emotional control. If you ask one how she is feeling, she probably won’t say “bad” or “uncomfortable.” She’ll likely respond with something less emotionally-tinged, like, “I am doing as well as I projected for this stage of the race” or “I need to rehydrate.”

At hour 17, I felt sick. Just after 2 a.m., I paused to throw up, stumbling around a bit while listening to a Carrie Underwood song, thinking that the experience felt a lot like the way people describe nightlife at college. I picked up the pace again, hoping to receive some encouragement from my crawdad…my crewdad…my crew Dad. But it was a quiet part of the night, and most crews were napping. He had fallen asleep, all bundled up from the cold. I switched my ipod to live tracks of music. Tip for success: If you need affirmation and there is no one to affirm you, listen to live music. Every time a song ends, there is applause.

I still pushed harder from time to time, but Tania kept me in check. The first 20 hours, you tick off miles. The final 4, you race. The sun came up, and I could see people’s faces. They looked wearier than they had before. “Oh, my gosh…your face…” (Don’t say that.)

With two hours remaining, Tania stood alongside the backstretch of the course, waiting for me to pass. She told me, “Now you can go. Win this [freaking] race.”

I didn’t have much mental command of my actions at that point, so I was glad to be given direction. I opened my stride and started running hard. I negative-split my 24. I felt good and free. I was so thankful that I was finally allowed to go, and I realized Tania knew what she was doing when she was reigning me in all day. I was also a bit bemused that she knew how my body would respond better than I did. Fifteen minutes later, I had the lead, and it kept growing. The faster I ran, the bolder I felt. Ultramarathoning allows me to experience a personal strength that I know in no other context.

With several minutes remaining, Tania gave me a finisher’s stick (to drop at my final location for a more accurate count). But she told me to complete another lap and make sure I left everything on the course. I did that, crossing the start/finish and proceeding part-way around the loop again. The final hour of the race, I hadn’t taken in any food or water, partially because I didn’t want to break momentum but mostly because my stomach was in a precarious state, and I feared the repercussions of the combination of heavy exertion and low-quality comestibles. That final lap, I started feeling faint. I bit my tongue to get the blood back into my head, and by the time the horn sounded, I was toasted. Tania met me there and helped me walk across the field. We sobbed together as she told me I had the American record.

As an athlete, it’s difficult to pause and celebrate things, especially since you have personal knowledge of the parts of races that you executed poorly and the areas where you could tighten up your training to live a more vibrant life. I’m trying to rest in this accomplishment for a moment and allow myself to feel excited, but I also feel joyfully compelled to continue on with greater focus and honesty in my training.

Also, I haven’t blogged this yet, but I’m going to MARRY DAVID LITTLE IN FOUR MONTHS. In March, I asked his parents for his hand in marriage in exchange for my seven finest oxen and a field of fecund cows. Is that how it happened? I forget.

Thanks for a great race! Thanks for everyone there (runners, volunteers, officials, race director Heidi Finniff, and Tania) for making it fun.

So fun.

So so fun.

I'm still uncool. Let's be friends.