NeologisticsRunning → ATY 2002

From Despair to Ecstasy

Across the Years 72-Hour Race

December 29, 2002 -- January 1, 2003
Queen Creek, Arizona

Across the Years 2002 Slide Show
My Annotated Race Log


This year's running of Across the Years, Decades, Centuries and Millennia 72, 48, and 24 Hour Run, Walk, Nap and Eat (a.k.a. ATY, ACTY, and Across the Years) was another magnificent event, highlighted by some spectacular runs, wonderful weather, and the best t-shirt and hooded sweatshirt ever.

Dead Runners were well represented at this race. The winners of both the men's and women's 72-hour race are Dead Runners: Doug Dziedzic (a.k.a. Joe H. Smith on the list), and Michele Wolfe respectively. I had the honor of watching both of these superb runners perform magnificently throughout the three days, and of becoming acquainted with them.

Dead Runner Carl Jess was also there, and ran 100 miles. Last year he missed winning the event by only one or two laps.

The most awesome runs were turned in by 25-year-old Joe Gaebler in the 24-hour race, and by Mark Heinemann and Jeff Hagen in the 48-hour race. Joe obliterated the ATY 24-hour course record by 10.5 miles with a mind-boggling run of 145.40 miles, possibly the best 24-hour performance by an American in 2002 (or maybe 2003, depending on when they credit it). Mark Heinemann chugged away relentlessly for an astonishing total of 222.20 miles, followed by 55-year-old Jeff Hagen, with 214.25 miles, running the whole way with a smile. Joe was great to watch, but for me Mark was the real star of the event.

Barbara Elia, age 58, was the only woman who ran the 48-hour race, but performed admirably with a total of 153.60 miles, thereby becoming deserving of her no-contest win.

Erwin Valdebenito came from South America with a TV crew to attempt to break the South American 24-hour record, but did not make it. He still managed to get a superb 126.01 miles, which would have been good enough to win the race not many years ago.

Eric Clifton ran for 117.56 miles after setting the course on fire the first several hours. Eric has a well-known reputation of going out hard at every race. If he can hold on, he often wins by significant margins. This was not to be one of his greatest days, but I for one appreciated that he stuck around and did the best he could until the end, unlike of some elites who quit and disappear from races when they realize their goals will not be realized. It was wonderful just to watch him run.

Brenda Klein won the women's 24-hour race with 108.62 miles. The last two years she ran in the shadow of Janet Runyan. Although Brenda was not entirely satisfied with her performance this year, running 108.62 miles in 24 hours and winning the event is hardly something to be ashamed of. Her closest competition was from masters winner Francoise Carpenter, age 54, who finished 19th overall, with 77.05 miles.

For the third year in a row representatives from Mark (Yo) Tizer's running group The Community (formerly known as Divine Madness) were present. Joseph Gaebler, Mark Heinemann, and Brenda Klein are all from that group. One other runner (I believe it was Leslie Herman) also participated, and Yo himself turned in a commendable 62.88 miles while overseeing the activities of his runners. Yo's runners add significantly to the value of ATY. Every individual among them that I have been able to meet has been nothing but as nice as can be. I do hope, if there are future editions of ATY, that they will continue to come.

And there was also yours truly. I wound up with a total of 164.54 miles for 72 hours, four miles less than last year. Overall, I am quite happy with this, given the circumstances.

I had a most unusual race, a study in contrasts: a good day followed by one of my worst days ever, followed by my best day ever. It will take more than a few words to relate what happened.

The Day Before

As a local resident who lives an hour's drive from the race site, I can lug anything I want to the race, not being limited by what I can carry on an airplane or bus. It's been my custom the last four years to drive out the day before the race with my daughter Cyra-Lea and set everything up, then arrive on race morning an hour before start time with nothing to worry about except checking in, dressing, and setting things out on my card table. This year I knew exactly the spot I wanted to occupy, and it was available, smack in the middle of things. Only two or three other tents had already been set up by persons who preferred more remote areas.

Several others arrived early, including some I have met before: Dennis Kranz, who talked me through rough times last year, but who had to drop out this year at 72 miles because of back problems; the omnipresent Tim Kourounis, who shows up at just about every fixed-time event in the country; and 68-year-old race founder Harold Sieglaff, who has been at every one of the 20 ATY's, and this year walked 106 miles.

Among new acquaintances were Stanley Duobinis and Margaret Schlundt from Maryland, who covered every inch of their mutual 152 miles in virtual lockstep. Later that afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Dead Runner Michele Wolfe, the ultimate winner of the women's 72-hour race.

Day 1

On the way to the race I stopped at the Greyhound station to pick up Doug Dziedzic, who had endured an arduous bus trip all the way from Binghamton, NY, and seemed ill-prepared to begin running for 72 hours, a background factoid that makes his win all the more remarkable.

The weather all three days was perfect, with high temperatures around 70, occasionally breezy, mostly cloudless skies, and cold but endurable nights, with a few minutes of light rain that blew through early the first evening.

My first day went well, as I slipped early into a rhythm of a lap and a half of running followed by a half lap of walking, a pattern suggested to me by Jan Ryerse's Ultracentric report on the Ultra List. It worked well for me, and I was able to keep this up with only minor interruptions for about the first ten hours.

The race starts at 9:00 AM. This time of year it is dark by 6:00 PM and does not get significantly light out until shortly after 7:00 AM. The cold in the desert nights must never be underestimated. In addition, no matter how hard a person tries, his body will try to shut down at night, and he will travel more slowly. Those who master those circumstances are able to continue logging miles. Those who cannot retreat to tents and fall behind.

On the first night I continued walking until 2:00 AM, then got in my sleeping bag for two hours, the only sleep I got during the first 24-hour period. That night, due to miscommunication with school authorities, we had no field lights. There was adequate ambient light for running the track, but the darkness made it a bit difficult to find things inside tents. We had lights the second and third nights.

There are few experiences I can think of more unpleasant than sleeping in funky clothing after running for so long, being awakened suddenly by muscles on the verge of cramping, body sweating from being under heavy covers, and having to leap nearly naked out of a sleeping bag into a dark tent in freezing temperatures, fumbling for clothing to put on so one can begin running again. Somehow I got through it, and eventually warmed up as I put myself in motion once again. By the end of the first day I had logged 70 miles less sixteen hundreths, 2.5 miles ahead of last year's pace.

Day 2

Having done multi-day races three times, I can testify that the second days are hardest from every perspective. First, you're exhausted from having been at it 24 hours already. Most runners put in their best effort the first day, then gut it out to the end. In a 72-hour or longer race the psychological difference on the second day is enormous. You run or walk all day at a rate of speed that is barely fast enough to qualify as exercise. When 9:00 PM comes, it's black and cold once again, and you realize that you are totally exhausted, but have just passed the halfway mark in the race. Memories of the previous night's sleeping bag experience are still fresh. You may think you can tough it out until morning and sleep then, but that's unlikely, and probably also unwise, especially given that you have yet another day ahead.

I resolved that I would not run a step on the second day, hoping that I would thereby recover well enough to have a decent third day where I could do some running.

It seemed as though numerous little distractions kept interfering with steady progress. It took a good 20 minutes to change clothes from head to foot in midday. Before I knew it, it was dark again, and I knew I would need to sleep some. Should I do it early or tough it out? I was starting to weave about on the track, so decided a good two hours relatively early might get me through it.

I tried an experiment. Last year, in the wee hours of the third day, I fell asleep for 45 minutes sitting on my camp chair in my tent, with a pillow in my lap. It was the sleep session that did the trick, giving me the strength to finish strong. Maybe I could do that this night as well. I would also skip taking a shower any time during this race, because that would result in another hour of down time. I figured I could handle that.

The Crisis

Immediately after 9:00 PM I sat down in my tent to sleep. I awoke about ninety minutes later, groggy, shivering uncontrollably, with both knees and ankles in pain. It must have taken me ten minutes to walk a lap, and I was still far from awake.

Then I decided to check my posted mileage. I nearly went into shock when I read that I was only at 85 miles. I hadn't been keeping track, but estimated that surely I should have been close to 100 by then. I did not yet know that I had misread the chart. My actual mileage was 96 and some decimal.

At that point, I did something I have never done in any race: I basically paniced and quit. I knew I wasn't in good enough shape to do this. I was in the wrong sport. I had no business being there in the first place. I could use the next day to clean up, relax, have a nice day at home, and then come collect my stuff on Wednesday morning. Such was my reasoning.

I went in search of a cell phone. By now it was approaching 11:00 PM. I called my wife, who was already sound asleep, and asked her to come get me. I was pulling out.

Five minutes later I had changed my mind. Groan. What had I done?

But I couldn't get ahold of Suzy before she left. As I continued to walk laps, warm up, and become more comfortable, my head cleared, and I reasoned out what I was going to do.

There was no way I was going to get my wife out of bed and drive an hour to come pick me up and then send her home without me — not if I ever want to run this race again. What I'd done could not be undone; I just had to work on a plan to make the best of it.

At least, I reasoned, I could go home and take a shower as long as I was there, and get a decent night's sleep.

It was Cyra-Lea who showed up. Suzy was in the back seat of her car. Cyra-Lea is a nursing student used to working 12-hour night shifts and living a crazy schedule. She heard Suzy staggering down the hallway and got up to see what was up, and just took over.

On the way home I learned that Suzy had called a handyman to caulk the showers that afternoon. I would not be able to take a shower in my own home, with two days of stink on me. I was limited to a shivering sponge bath, which left me feeling scummy. And oh, by the way, a guy was coming to clean the carpets at 7:00 AM, and we all had to be out of the house by then.

Just great.

The latter worked to my advantage. After doing what I could to make myself comfortable, I got to bed at 1:30 AM, then got up again at 6:15 and headed back out to the track by myself, with a cup of strong coffee in hand, wearing a pair of old sweatpants and a plaid shirt. The carpet guy pulled up to the house as I was backing out of the driveway.

When I arrived, I threw the gear I carried back and forth into my tent, without bothering to pull out my aid station stuff, and began walking laps. A few people who had noticed I'd been gone a long time asked where I'd been. I didn't try to hide the brutal truth. I had quit — given up — but I was back like a prodigal son and ready to demonstrate my repentance.

On the second day I had accumulated a measly 27 miles, by far my worst single day in a 24-hour or longer race. (I don't have the splits available to give exact numbers.)

Day 3

Whereupon I proceeded to have what may have been the best running day of my life.

Suzy and Cyra-Lea showed up by around 8:30 AM. Cyra-Lea brought running clothes with her and wanted to run with me for a while in the afternoon.

During the morning my desire to run again returned to me, but I was not up to extended running. I decided I would run increasingly hard on the straights, and would walk on the curves. Soon I was liking this pattern a bunch. I was making progress, and was never more than a few seconds from a walk break.

It must have been noon when Cyra-Lea checked the board and told me I had 118 miles. No way! I scolded; I hadn't been there long enough to be that far. I couldn't be much over 100 at most. Back she went to check more carefully. When she returned she said: "Dad — you have 118 miles." That's when I realized that I misread the chart the night before. Rather than being pitifully behind my anticipated pace, I was well on my way to a substantial PR, then threw it all away. The wheels in my head began turning as I started doing the math, trying to figure out what I could do yet that day.

That afternoon I experienced what was undoubtedly my best afternoon of running for the entire year of 2002. Everything suddenly felt right, and I became the master.

At 2:27 Cyra-Lea joined me, as we started an unbroken series of what I am referring to as 100-meter repeats: running the straights hard and walking the curves, also pretty hard.

My original intent was to run that way for as long as I could, figuring I would wear out in a few minutes. Before long I was exhilarated and fully into it. My legs and energy level were good. I started putting some steam into the runs, and Cyra-Lea kept up.

To call what I do sprinting is more than a bit of a stretch, but before long, during the times I was actually running, I was the fastest guy moving out there, except for legendary ultrarunner Eric Clifton. No one else was passing me. It wasn't extreme speed, but strong, smooth, concentrated running, emphasizing relaxed, good form. I got to enjoy the rare experience of passing many runners repeatedly over an extended period of time. I came up three places in the standings within a couple of hours. My thinking was: it was the nicest part of the day on the third day — if I had anything left to give to the race, in order to salvage it in some way, I had to come up with it right then, because it was an unavoidable given that I would lock up at night.

We had great fun while it lasted, particularly since I knew so many people out there. I'd see someone I know toward the end of the straight and make an effort to whiz by before I breaking into a walk. Egotistical? You bet. But it was a race, right? We were having a ball trying to draw comments, and even managed to get a few. Not to mention that the very sight of someone doing speed drills on the third day of a three-day race was comical. I knew it and reveled in it.

Once we were moving particularly fast and I whispered to Cyra-Lea: "I've gotta blow by Clifton!", then about 20 yards ahead. So we did. But she blew it for me when she said as we flew past: "My dad is trying to beat you." Eric was laughing as he ran by a few steps later. (He had run a 2:53 marathon split, and a 3:30 50K in the context of his 24-hour race.) I remarked as he went by: "There's something you'll never see me do again for the rest of my life!" leading to more giggling from Eric Clifton. (I stopped to meet him after the race. He's quite a nice fellow.)

Cyra-Lea finally crawled off the track with her tongue hanging out at 3:30 flat, limp with exhaustion. I walked a lap, then continued the routine until 5:00 PM, having enjoyed two and a half hours of the most intense running I've done all year, before settling into a more normal routine of mostly walking for the rest of the 24-hour period.

Most importantly: I had salvaged my race and was back in it again; I felt as though I had proven to myself that I deserved to be there.

When I checked the board, I realized that a PR was still within my grasp. All I had to do was not care what happens to me. If I could endure the third night with little or no sleep, I would at least come close.

As it became dark, Suzy and Cyra-Lea left me for the night to work out my own salvation.

Guardian Angels

The afternoon's folly was not to be without consequence. I paid for my indulgence with a nasty shin splint that left me limping and stopping to rub it out every few laps for the rest of the race, from about 10:00 PM on. This left me unable to run at all except for an extraordinary effort the last couple of laps of the race.

I still had the long night to face. How would I get through it? That's when a pair of guardian angels appeared to look after me.

The first was local ultrarunning star Laura Nagy, who won the Crown King 50-mile race both the last two years. Besides fetching me coffee, soup, and hot chocolate, she spent a couple of hours turning over laps with me, and allowing me to babble, which helped me to keep my mind off my shin pain.

Shortly thereafter Alene Nitzky, another fine ultrarunner, showed up and took over babysitting duties from Laura for at least an hour, generously letting me tell my tale of woe and redemption for about the eighth time that day.

Eventually I concluded I would need to sleep some. This time, instead of facing my cold tent, I picked up a heavy blanket and headed for the heated sleeping tent on the south end. I'd avoided it before, because I heard it was too hot, but they must have made an adjustment, because it turned out to be quite reasonable. Perhaps if I had gone there the night before, my experience would have been much different.

I stretched out at 2:00 AM. At 3:00 AM I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Laura Nagy, concerned about my hopes for a PR, and asking whether I wanted to get up. She was working the timing area now, and noticed I hadn't logged a lap since 1:49. I didn't set an alarm and suppose I could have slept for hours. I asked Laura to wake me in another half hour. I genuinely appreciate her thoughtfulness in taking the initiative to look out for me in that way.

Then it was time to kick to the finish. But I knew there was not enough time to make a PR, even if I would be able to run hard until the end, which by this time was impossible.

Nothing spectacular happened for the rest of the race. I walked as hard as my limp would let me, and sat down for a couple of minutes per hour to rub my leg and recharge. The last lap I ran, though I didn't have to. When I finished at 8:58:34 there was not enough time to run another lap, so I pulled over and joined the cheering crowds to greet the remaining runners as they came in for their final laps. I had covered 662 laps, 164.54 miles, 16 laps and about 4 miles less than last year. My total mileage for the third day was about a mile less than the first day — in my eyes a remarkable and satisfying comeback.

It's impossible to avoid wondering whether I'd have gotten the PR if I hadn't taken that nap, or whether I would have gotten to my originally-hoped-for goal of 180 miles if I had not gone home and taken an eight-hour break. I'll never know, of course, because the variables are complex, and any conclusions drawn would be strictly speculative.

Part of the reason we do these things in the first place is to test our limits, and in doing so, to learn from the experience. In conclusion, I'm embarrassed and furious that I gave in so easily to fear and despair in the middle of the race, but I won't hide it either. But I did learn a lot about myself in being able to face the crisis and overcome it with a strong third day rally, and wouldn't have missed that revelation for anything.


Whether there will be a next year for Across the Years remains to be seen. Race director Paul Bonnett, who has poured himself into the race for several years in a row, seems adamant about resigning as RD, especially now that he has recently become president of Arizona Road Racers, and has much to do in that capacity.

Five years ago ATY was just a low-key race that few people paid much attention to. Today it has become much like a family reunion, as the rarefied group of runners who are interested in such an unusual sport gather annually to celebrate their mutual love of endless running. It provides a gathering point even for runners who do not participate, an opportunity to drop by, say hello, maybe run a few laps themselves, and enjoy a vicarious thrill. In short, Across the Years has become one of the great ultra races in the country, and it would be a shame to see it die after 20 years of putting it on. Those of us who love it will look forward anxiously to see whether someone capable is able to step up and take over the helm.