We had been at this for about 18 hours. I was not moving well, but I was moving. My mind was not working particularly well either, but I surprised myself with this very lucid question, “Why am I doing this?” I could not come up with a good answer.
Back eight hours or so ago I recall overhearing a couple of young women as they oohed and aahed over some shirtless young buck as he passed by. His stride was easy and he looked like he could maintain his pace long enough to turn this one-mile loop to butter.
Hurting, but holding my own in the middle of the pack, I pulled up aside and asked, “How ya doing?” He was limping, but at some point in a 24 hour race, everyone limps. If you’re not limping, your probably not doing it right.
“I’m about done, I think you’ve got this,” he said.
“Are you on lap 94?”
“Yeah, I think so. Who’s ahead of us?”
“Ahead of us? No one’s ahead of us.”
The Howard Aslinger 24-Hour Endurance Run
When I signed up for the GO! St. Louis Marathon on April 6 I was well aware it was only 15 days before the 2014 Boston Marathon. That’s OK, I like a hard run a couple weeks prior to another hard run. I also knew that April 6th was my wife’s birthday. It took a few more weeks to recognize that running a marathon on my wife’s birthday might not be as special to her as it was to me. I am a Neanderthal. So, I suggested that we celebrate her birthday skiing in Colorado instead. “Would it be OK if I just trade that 26.2 mile run on your birthday for a 24-hour run on March 14-15 instead?” I am a sensitive, yet practical, Neanderthal.
Kim and Bryan Kelpe started this race to honor Kim’s father, Howard Aslinger. From everything I have learned, Howard was a cool dude. “It’s not a disability, it’s an inconvenience” is their tagline. The mountains we have to climb seem to flatten out when we see others make the ascent without all the resources we bring to bear. Resources like legs that work. This year’s race featured a number of wheelers. They were a tremendous inspiration each time they passed by . . . which they did quite often. John Payne from the Memphis area rolled over 167 miles in 24 hours. Salute.
The course is built for distance . . . a 0.984-mile paved/concrete, pancake-flat loop around Arena Park in Cape Girardeau, MO. 0.984 sounds pretty much like a mile until you get to 100 laps and are reminded that you need 102 laps to beat the 100-mile mark. This is a sadistic punch in the gut. Why not just move an orange cone a few feet to make it an even 1.00/mile? Because Bryan and Kim have determined that 24 hours is not enough of a sufferfest. Why not pour on 0.016 per mile of mental waterboarding each lap? Suck it up, buttercup.
7 PM Friday to 7 AM Saturday
So, I really had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. Pacer Dan and I had run out to Augusta earlier in the year . . . 37 miles in just under 6 hours. Of course, that training run ended at the August Brewing Company. Incentives were properly aligned to focus our attention. What happens after you hit 37 miles in Hour Six of a 24-hr race? Nothing. No celebratory beer. No one to greet you and say you are nuts but you did a good job. No, you just have 18 more hours to go. And other than the runners and the awesome volunteers, you are running around in circles in Cape Girardeau as the temperatures nosedive. It was simply morbid curiosity that propelled me. I knew it had taken me 28 hours to run 100 miles in the mountains of Colorado with no oxygen. What would happen at 351 ft above sea level on a flat course?
Ben McCaux had driven down from Chicago the previous day after signing up for the 12-hour race which happened to coincide with the start of the 24-hour slog. Despite being from Wisconsin, he is a good guy. We did 50 miles together on the Leadville trail a couple years ago and he has signed up again for the 2014 Leadville 100. Ben tweeted about having a TV tray set up along the course for an aid station. I pictured him running by to snag fuel and hydration just like an elite Kenyan. We drive up to the race and there is Ben with his TV tray loaded with enough fuel to solve starvation in most of the third world.
At 7 PM about 80 runners headed off into the Missouri gloaming to run around in circles for 12 or 24 hours. Ben and I held a sold 8:30/mile pace for probably too long, but I was able to knock out about 36 miles in the first 6 hours. Tami had been asleep for hours by then and the temps were starting to drop. The wind which had been blowing hard through midnight finally died down and I found a couple hours from 2 AM to 4 AM where all was good with the world. Sometimes you get into a rhythm and time evaporates. It was like a 120-minute slow drip of endorphins. I spend thousands of hours pounding the pavement each year searching for those fleeting moments when it just flows. I had found my moment. Unfortunately, Ben was not so lucky. His innards were not treating him well and he decided to pull the plug after close to 50 miles.
7 AM to 7 PM Saturday
The sun came up as the fog rolled in from the Mississippi River and the 12-hour runners called it a half day. Eric Buckley won the 12-hr race with 65.9 miles. I believe my tally was about 64 miles at the halfway point. Motivation was starting to wane and I made up my mind to make it to 100 miles. “100 miles, drop the microphone, walk offstage” became my new mantra. I wish it had been that easy.
Frost on the Salted Carmel GUs and a partially frozen water bottle signaled that temps may have fallen a bit farther than forecast. By the 12-hour mark you pretty much know where everyone is from, how many races they have run, how many kids they have, the names of their pets along with any and all intimate chafing details they care to share. We were all expecting the sun to provide a bit of a psychological boost which made the fog rolling in that much more of a buzzkill.
Steve & Jenn Coy, Tami’s cousins, along with their kiddos showed up bearing gifts. You cannot fathom how good a Sausage McMuffin tastes after 15 straight hours of GU and Honey Stinger Waffles. They paced me for a few laps and then, as we found out later, took off to post motivational llama pictures in key places along the race route. LLAMA POWER! By early afternoon I had caught up to Matt Phau, a 24-year old runner sporting zero-percent body fat. He was limping and asked me if I was still planning to call it quits at the 100-mile mark. “That’s the plan.” Stunned is not a strong enough word to describe my reaction to learning that I was on the lead lap. Hey, I’m a midpack runner. The last time I won a race was probably at a neighborhood baby crawl back in 1961. I do not pretend to have the talent to hang with the big dogs up front. But that realization now made it impossible to think about quitting after Lap 102. I was all in.
Tami paced me from miles 90 through 100 and it was so nice to have her company. Hitting the 100-mile mark with the crowd cheering was a special thrill but I was down to a pitiful death shuffle and expected to be overtaken at any moment. Lap 103, 104, 105, 106 . . . each time calling off my bib number so the official scorers could mark the tally. “Has anyone else hit the hundo mark?” The race officials poured over the tally sheets . . . “no, you’re the only one so far.” How had the world gone so haywire that one of these guys or gals who had seemingly been passing me at all hours of the race could be that far behind? “What’s the course record?” This was the 6th year of the event. “It’s 110 miles, keep going, you’ve got this!”
“Matt and Doug have pulled the plug, they’re done”, one of the 12-hour racers told me around Lap 110. Knowing that once your mind has decided to quit after 22+ hours it is pretty much impossible to rally, I slowed down and prepared to take a few celebratory victory laps and maybe squeeze 111 miles out of this thing. Just then the zombie apocalypse struck. I heard a freight train coming from behind, chugging along at a 7 min/mile clip. It was Doug Ambler who had placed 2nd in the event last year with 105+ miles. And then Matt flew by. Just a few laps back they were toast. Body and mind gone, ready to hang it up. And now, after 100+ miles, they had a full head of steam and were sprinting. It was truly one of the most incredible performances I had ever seen. This is not humanly possible! I could barely put one foot in front of another and these guys looked like they were doing a 5K.
All runners get pretty good at doing mental math gymnastics near the end of a race. You project the pace you need to hold to hit a certain mark. By Mile 113 with only about 35 minutes left in the race I knew that it would be physically impossible for any non-Kenyan to catch up unless I dropped on the spot . . . which was a distinct possibility. Tami joined me for the final lap and the clock struck 7 PM with the official tally of 115.528 miles in 24 hours. Somewhere in there I told her that I never, ever wanted to do this again.
But I’ve said that before.
Many thanks to Bryan and Kim Kelpe for putting on such an incredibly well-run race. Also, my distance running mentors, Joe Fejes, Chris Russell and Dean Karnazes, have been awesome providing motivation and advice. And why Tami puts up with this craziness I will never truly understand. She does not really care to run but having her out on the course with me was very special. Thank you.
The Ensuing Carnage
Everything from the waist down hurt. It took several hours and a couple Advil to settle down to where I could sleep. And sleep I did. Hard. Surprisingly, I was able to get out for a run a few days later. Sore? Yes, but not nearly as bad as after Leadville.
What have I learned from this? Sausage McMuffins and cheeseburgers are still my ultra fuel of choice, although the Salted Carmel GUs, strawberries, bananas and grapes did a good job of providing the majority of my caloric needs with no adverse stomach effects.
More importantly, I re-learned something that I think most of us already know. If you keep moving forward, no matter what the pace and simply don’t quit, someday the tumblers just might fall in place and you just might surprise the hell out of yourself.
Take care, friends, we’ll see you out there.