The morning started with a wonderful sense of oppression. As I looked out my window at the cloudless sky, I had a feeling that at some point, the weather forecasters were going to get it right today: nothing but blue skies with a high in the mid-90s, “hottest day of the year so far!” is what I distinctly remember from a few days before.
No better time to run a 12-hour race …besides, that’s what we do? Right?
As I got to Spain Park in Birmingham, AL, I quickly realized that the amount of exposure throughout the day was going to be significant. Much of the 3-mile loop was without cover, so the sunscreen had to be heavy. My friend Jake and I got our aid spot established on the bed of an old trailer which was situated nicely under two big trees, and I proceeded to get sprayed down by my wife with sun block.
Soon, the race director summoned us to the starting line with one minute to spare. Interesting thing about 12-hour events is that there really was no jockeying for position. So the clock started at 7am. 12 hours to go. Or so I thought.
The race started very conservatively for me. My plan was to stick to 9-minute miles for most of the morning, until the heat began to hit in full force, then hold on to 10+ minute miles and see what happened. As I made my way around the crushed gravel trail of the park for the first time, a few things became very clear to me. One, the course was much hillier than I thought it was going to be. Now not real hilly, but I knew that over the course of the day that the small ups-n-downs could turn into bigger challenges. Two, I really should have brought some gaiters! My shoes would no doubt soon be full of small rocks. This was enough to concern myself with for the first two laps. I resigned my lot, be it cast as it may, and pressed on.
I stuck to my plan for most of the morning, but modified it to incorporate more of a pull on the downhills. I let the course give me speed where it wanted, and this actually served to give several muscle groups a chance to work. I would open up the few downhill slopes, and immediately slow back down on the flats and uphills. For each lap I ate a Gu gel and drank either Nuun or Gu Brew Tablets, so I felt that I was well-prepared for the coming heat.
By 4:20 (cumulative race time), I cruised through the checkpoint at 30 miles. I felt great, still with plenty of focus and strength for the afternoon. Each lap brought with it a sense of accomplishment, for it was just a few weeks ago that I was in a boot trying to recover from a ruptured sheath that housed the tendon on the top of my left foot. I was thankful to be out running and feeling great. And so the laps went by, and with it the time. 39 miles … 45 miles … 51 miles …uh-oh.
As the clock hit the 8-hour mark (around there, anyways), I was at 51 miles. I got to my aid stop, grabbed a fresh bottle, got some gel chomps, and paused. I think I remember all of a sudden feeling really really bad. I began walking …and walking …just to the road I said to myself …then just to the tunnel …maybe just to the wooded area …My head felt like it was going to explode, it was throbbing so bad. I soon realized that I had quit sweating, and that I was getting cold. I thought that this was kind of odd, seeing that it was now the hottest part of the day. “Am I cold?”
Yes, I was cold. I knew this was not good. I walked back to the aid station, and took a seat under the pavilion. I got my Buff wrap and soaked it in ice water, and got my hat and did the same. I knew what was happening to myself: heat stroke. I was going to ward it off before it got bad, in hopes of continuing.
I sat for an hour, drinking fluids, and taking salt pills. Still feeling really bad, I was determined to give it one more try. I put on a new shirt, got a handful of peanut butter pretzels, and two bottles, one with ice water to cool myself off with, and the other with Gu Brew. I quickly realized that my efforts were futile at best. I was visibly stammering along the trail. I got to the road crossing, than to the tunnel, then to the entrance to the woods, then to a bench, then passed out on the bench.
I was toast. No sweat, cold, headache, out of fluid, incoherent. As I came to, I knew that I had to make it back to the staging area. So I managed to pull myself up and walk. As I made it back out of the woods into the sun, I really thought that I was going down again, but I knew what was going on with me, and I knew the consequences of going down would be a lot worse than those which I was currently facing, so I pressed on. As the staging area came into sight, I gave it one last stammer, and that was that.
By now the clock was at 10+ hours. There were a few people left out there, but only one who had his nutrition dialed in. Not sure his name, but he did a great job, managing 57 miles and taking 1st overall.
I tried to recover as best as I could, eating, drinking, taking salt tabs, but I was in rough shape. My total miles were 51, which I had completed in a little over 8 hours (since I got to 51 the fastest, I did get 2nd overall). By the finish of the 12 hours, there were a few folks left at the pavilion, one of which looked very good. We all had suffered out there, but we all had learned a lot about ourselves; mainly, that 90+ degree weather plus over exposure to the sun is tough to overcome.
But I will say this. It is experiences like this one that keep calling me to long-distance running. The things that we as ultrarunners get to experience, the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions that we experience when fatigue and the elements have stripped us bare, this is a feeling like no other, and one that cannot be duplicated in our everyday existence. And it is for moments like these that I run.