Following the twentieth edition of Across the Years, race director Paul Bonnett retired from directing it. Arizona Road Racers was ready to retire the race. But ATY is a popular event with many who have participated in it. Coming at the time of year that it does, it provides an occasion for ultrarunners in the area to run, volunteer, celebrate, or just drop in and hang out.
Since 1999 Across the Years has become one of the premiere multiday running events in the US. Some runners could not bear the thought of seeing this superlative race disappear from the ultrarunning calendar. An undercurrent of discussion developed among those who care about what could be done to prevent its demise.
Central to the idea of continuing was a proposal made by Rodger Wrublik, the owner of Nardini Manor, to present a race at his 5.5-acre facility in Litchfield Park, AZ. For this he was willing to build a track at his own expense, an unprecedented act of generosity.
On January 11, 2003, a coalition of ATY advocates got together at a pizza joint to talk about what could be done. Rodger brought a diagram of the grounds of Nardini Manor, with a map of showing where he proposed to build the running path, originally a one-kilometer zig-zaggy route with several tight corners. The result of this meeting was to accept Rodger's proposal, and to form a committee of volunteers to do the work of organizing, under the directorship at first of Alene Nitzky, to be joined soon by Laura Nagy.
In early May the race committee met at Nardini Manor to get a first-hand look at the place. Rodger had barely begun chopping back some of the foliage, but we were able to get a good idea of what he had in mind. There were many questions yet to be answered regarding exactly what route it should follow, how long a loop would be, whether we would be able to get the distance certified, and what the surface would be like.
Among the first things to be decided was to present an unofficial 12-hour all-night run to test out the track the night of July 5-6, 2003, where runners would count their own laps, and no support other than water would be offered. Rodger barely completed the work necessary to get it ready on the day of the run.
The surface was still spongy, loose, uneven, and less than ideal for competitive running. One section was inconveniently narrow, and needed to be rerouted.
The temperature rose to 108 degrees during the day the day of that run, which enhanced the odor that emanated from the nearby barnyards. The evaporative cooling effect that came off the canal next to the corn field bordering the east side did more to elevate the humidity than to provide any comfort. Most runners concluded it was a tough way to spend a July night in Arizona. Still, at the postmortem meeting it was concluded that with a few improvements we would be able to put on a superior multiday racing event, so plans proceeded.
The single toughest factor to cope with at Across the Years is the desert nighttime cold, which sometimes goes below freezing, with fourteen hours of darkness in late December. While actually out running, the cold is not much of a factor. But the longer one runs, whether 24, 48, or 72 hours, the more time off the track becomes a factor, which usually means camping, sleeping — sometimes in stinking, wet running clothing, changes in body temperature, and getting up and stripping naked in the middle of the night to change clothing. Last year, getting out of my sleeping bag and shivering violently as I tried to change clothes on the second night was such a distasteful experience that I nearly gave up and quit the race early.
Therefore, one huge win in being able to use Nardini Manor was its 100'x60' circus-size tent just a few feet from the timing tent, which Rodger kindly heated with propane when it got cold. Many people, including me, erected tents inside it. About a dozen air mattresses and a few army cots were also provided. There was plenty of room to spare, even though only a handful of people chose to erect their tents outside.
As more meetings were held, the spirit of the race committee became notably excited. We secured extras that are almost unheard of in ultra races, thanks to the generosity of numerous contributing sponsors. The food available included catered meals (chicken cordon bleu, burritos, and lasagna), hot soups, and a delicious and nutritious post-race meal. The sweat shirt and long sleeve t-shirt are simply the best, and runner goody bags were loaded with more stuff than I've ever seen, even in the glitziest and most expensive marathons. Post-race giveaways were generous as well (I got a Marathon Stick myself, a $30 retail value), all for a cost to runners that was lower than most races.
Because I live locally, I can bring whatever I can fit in my car to the race. I've always erected a de facto tiny apartment dwelling for myself. This year I spent little time in it, other than to change clothes twice, and to sleep a couple of times. The stuff I needed during the race, which was not much, I kept on an optimally chosen table near the aid station.
Even though I love ultrarunning, I'm not fond of suffering, and take advantage of normal comforts. Therefore, I considered it an infuriating bump in the road when, on Friday before the Monday race, the water heater in my home broke. They are easy to replace, but one needs a truck to haul a new one, which I don't have, and more pertinently, our broken tank was under warranty, but our plumber, a 25-year friend, could not get one until Monday morning of the race. It meant I would have to cope with going to the gym to shower on the weekend, and would show up at the start with my most recent cleansing having been about 4:00pm the day before, with no hope of being squeaky clean again before Thursday afternoon. Ugh.
Temperatures for several days before the race averaged ten degrees below seasonal norms. Rain was consistently predicted for Tuesday and Wednesday each time I checked. Would things improve? Fortunately, they did. The nights were milder than most previous years, and the rain predicted for Wednesday turned into afternoon sunshine.
Each year my daughter Cyra-Lea has kindly come with me the day before the race to help me with setup. I now have it figured out such that I could put up the tent myself if I had to, although a helping hand is certainly useful. By next year Cyra-Lea may be living on her own and may be unavailable, so I suppose I ought to try it out some day.
We have to figure it out again each year, because we aren't campers, so never use the gear any other time of the year. Cyra-Lea won the award for quote of the day as we were fumbling around, trying to figure out what plugs into what, when she said: "How can two people as smart as we are be too dumb to set up a tent?" But we did manage to get it up, and since we were inside the heated enclosure, we did not have to drive in stakes, or put up the shroud or canopy. It took about half as long as usual.
As we prepared to leave, I picked up my digital camera bag off the floor, but it was not zippered shut. The camera flew out and hit the brick floor hard! When I turned it on, I got a drive error message. Trashed it. I would be unable to take my own pictures at the race, not to mention the infuriating expense and inconvenience of having to repair or replace the camera. Even the pictures I took on setup day are lost until I can find a camera with which to finalize the disk. What a disappointment!
I was not as obsessed about pre-race preparations as in the past. My pre-race meal consisted of a simple bowl of soup with toast, and I stayed up until nearly 10:00pm. I slept nearly ten hours the night before, so felt a solid eight that night would suffice. It took a while to get to sleep, but I slept soundly.
Rather than the usual pre-dawn alarm and creeping around to avoid waking everyone up, characteristic of other race mornings, I woke up quite naturally on my own just before 6:00am, as my wife was up getting ready to go to work. As I stretched and prepared to hit the floor, I remembered — oh yeah, I've got this important thing to do today.
When I got up, weather.com reported it was a frigid 28 degrees in Litchfield park, but predicted no rain, with rising temperatures.
We arrived to find the registration taking place indoors, the tent comfortable, and a large party urn of coffee with fresh pastries laid out by the entry. Because it was so cold outdoors, I gave little thought to finding a place to set up a table for personal use outside before the race start. Nor did anyone else. Instead, as the day progressed, personal aid stations began to pop up. Rodger put out about ten tables for runners to use, so I didn't even need to drag my card table outside, but just picked what proved to be an ideal spot sometime around noon, which I eventually shared with our Japanese guests.
My attitude and conditioning going into this race have never been better. I came to give it my best effort and come off with a success. No place for wimping out or settling for "pretty good" had been written into the agenda.
The race clock was exactly in sync with my watch, which I keep synchronized with an atomic clock. As always, the race began precisely at 9:00am. By afternoon I ditched my watch in the tent because I didn't need it.
Just for fun, I took and held the lead for the first lap and a half. I no longer remember who finally passed me.
Prior to most races I carefully prepare a race plan, then discard it within five minutes into the race, as was the case in this race. Instead of starting my frequent run-walk pattern early, the sensible thing to do, I ran continuously for the first three hours, except for a brief stop in the tent after 19 laps to take my first electrolyte capsule. I felt wonderful just running and running, and wanted nothing more than to continue.
If you have a body like mine, it doesn't take long for reality to set in. As the day warmed, I migrated necessary items out to my nearby aid station, and began to settle into a more reasonable strategy for the long haul.
For a while I tried running four laps and walking part of a fifth, but quickly changed that scheme. In the early afternoon I discussed technique with Jan Ryerse, the ultimate winner of the 72-hour race, from whom I learned my run-walk strategy in time to use it in last year's race. Jan was then walking about 150 yards of every lap. This ratio differs dramatically from the technique some people use of running for some period like 25 minutes, then walking for five. This simply does not work for me. Jan agrees with my own conclusion — I don't need long walk breaks, but I do need frequent ones. I've spent countless hours training on the 155-yard track at Bally's gym, often running four laps and walking one. I've gone as far as 43 miles in nine hours that way without ever once breaking the pattern, or without slowing significantly. Therefore, by late afternoon I was no longer running full laps, but was picking segments to walk, which differed depending on which direction we were running, where we were at in the race, and how I felt.
One question all runners had was how good the track would prove to be after all the improvements that Rodger made. We had a committee meeting at Nardini in November, at which time I got to see the changes first hand. What I saw made me highly optimistic. In addition to being widened and rerouted in some places, it had been significantly hardened, and repeatedly smoothed and graded. Much brick trim and fencing had also been put up. The layout is more or less triangular, with no tight corners. (Speedier runners might think the southeast turn is a little tight, but the turn space is plenty broad.)
We call it a track, because that's runner argot for a short ten-foot wide path that loops around in circles, but technically the path was USAT&F certified as a road, not a track.
In retrospect, the Nardini track was the biggest win of all from being able to use the facility. I personally love it and wish I could train on it a lot more. Every single runner I heard say anything about it said only complimentary things, and thought it provides an ideal running surface — smooth, consistent, and hard enough to be fast, while providing the extra comfort to the legs characteristic of a dirt surface.
Tonto say: "Unnnhh. Day good! Night BAAADD!" The biggest single challenge to running a multiday successfully is no doubt coping with sleep deprivation, particularly at night, when our body is telling us: "Hey, Bozo! Cut it out!"
My original plan for the first day was to run consistently until 10:00pm, walk only until 3:00am, grab four hours sleep, and be back out on the course by 7:00am, as the day was dawning. Like most of my plans, this one didn't work out. Because I worked harder than usual the first part of the day, I got tired sooner. By 8:30pm I was wobbling and walking into fences. (Thank you, Rodger, for the fences!) I needed sleep.
I stuck it out until the 9:00pm direction toggle, upon which I lumbered immediately to the tent for sleep. My big mistake there was behaving as though I was actually going to bed for the night at home — getting undressed, and wrapping my stinking body inside a too-warm sleeping bag with a blanket on top. When I awoke in a puddle of sweat barely two hours later, I knew immediately I would never be able to fall back to sleep, but it took over an hour before I was willing to climb out, afraid of the shock that would meet me, even though I realized that I was in a heated tent, not outside.
When I finally got up, it wasn't bad at all, other than being disgustingly dirty. I toweled off the best I could, changed clothes from head to foot, and headed out. In all I had been off the course about three hours and fifty minutes, as it was now just before the 1:00am direction change.
Unfortunately, making the effort to sleep is not the same as getting quality sleep. At 3:00am I needed to go in and lie down again, this time for less than an hour. A third time I just laid on top of my bag for an hour and a half, and a fourth I took a shor nap sitting in my chair,, which proved to be effective enough to snap me out of it for a while. By then had been off the track nearly six and a half hours the first day, which was disappointing, because it put a dent in my goal. I covered 63.69 by the end of the first day, but had hoped to get between 70 and 75 miles on day one. At least I had two more days.
The second night I had similar but less severe problems with sleep. One nap on top of the sleeping bag was not quite enough. Before long I went down a second and then a third time. I may have slept a total of three hours the second day, but my day split was only 51.57 miles. In all three of the 72-hour runs I have done, my second day was the hardest and the worst performance.
From whatever time it was I last slept in the early morning hours of December 31 until the end, I got groggy only once, around 4:00am. I told Laura Nagy I was going to sit in my chair and asked if she would wake me in fifteen minutes. I fell asleep instantly, and awoke feeling refreshed barely five seconds before she stepped into the tent to wake me up.
From then until the end of the race I became possessed by an exceptional burst of energy the like of which I've rarely experienced. To tell you the truth, I have no idea where that sort of thing comes from.
There were some wonderful performances going on, as some of the finest ultrarunners showed up to compete, some with hopes of setting records. Good runners in motion are endlessly fascinating to watch. Bad ones can be amusing or instructive as well.
In the early morning hours of January 1, 2004, after waking from my fifteen-minute nap, the only sleep I'd had for over 24 hours, I slipped into a performance zone the like of which I've rarely experienced.
Before long I sensed that I was going to reach my goal, and for once would not have to settle for "good enough but ..." or "pretty good" as an end result. This time I was going to nail it, giving my all.
Meanwhile, I became irritated at how long each lap seemed to take, and how at slowly the numbers on the hourly postings rose. With thirty laps left to reach my goal, I decided to do something about it.
I'm capable of walking quite fast when I have the energy, and more importantly, if I can find the rhythm and motion. I don't seem to be able to just start walking fast at will, but if I concentrate on the mechanics, I can work into it to where I can walk as fast as some of the slower runners were running.
First, I found my walking motion. Once that was going well, I chose two segments of the counterclockwise loop in which to run, places where I knew I would be able to do it well. The first was from the top of the driveway by the main entry, going past the Manor's front yard, around the southwest corner, to where the course takes a ten-foot jut to the right along the southern "back stretch." The other was from the end of the eastern straightaway, around the curve, past the parking area, and into the main area. The aid station is there at the entry. The path is framed on the outside edge by an 8'x40' storage unit that wasn't there until October, and which I did not become conscious of until this night. At night, with the back-lighting coming from the big tent and main area, it looked like I was entering a small western town, with the country store on the left. I started to think of it as: "... comin' into Dodge!"
The surge began just before 5:00am, as I began to move faster than I had in a long time. Once I started running, on each loop for over an hour hour, I powered through those segments, running them hard but smooth and relaxed, passing any runners on them and spectators nearby. It didn't take long before my surge attracted some attention. People began cheering for me every time I went by, especially the teenage girls working the aid station. It was great fun while it lasted. Runners like me rarely enjoy spectator response any more enthusiastic than, "Looking good!" or, "Keep hanging in there!", or more likely, "Better luck next time!", especially with runners like John Geesler and Scott Eppleman and Blake Wood and Stephanie Ehret in the vicinity.
The burst finally stopped at 7:00am, when we changed direction, and I paused to put on a coat. I'd stripped down to a single layer for the duration. I worked hard enough to pour sweat, and after two hours, with the sun not quite up, felt the chill.
The runners I talked to agreed that running that track in the counterclockwise direction is better than clockwise. I intended to mark out some run segments and start again after putting on my coat, but I lost my momentum, and never ran another step the rest of the race.
The folks in the timing tent told me when I had thirteen laps left to reach my goal, which I would reach easily if I didn't just sit down and quit. They counted them down for me each time I passed through the gate. Once I stopped the intense running, my energy level plummeted again, and I was soon reduced to walking laboriously, but accepted this as I sensed with excitement that the race was ending and I would make my goal.
At 8:15:35am I completed lap 580, giving me exactly 290K, 180.198 miles, over a quarter million steps, nearly seven marathons in three days, amidst the cheers of friends and family. Then, for the first time ever at the end of a fixed-time race, instead of hauling butt to squeeze out another two or more miles, I retrieved my chair and parked myself in a location where I could view all the others finishing. I was done.
Going into the race, I proposed a multi-tiered goal structure:
One of my favorite features of running Across the Years is the sense of community that develops at the race site, which was never stronger than this year, due in large measure to the unique ambience at Nardini Manor. Now that I've run this race myself five times, I've gotten to know the regulars, and have also become acquainted with new and impressive people along the way, many of them inspiring not only as runners, but for the personal attributes that have made them able to participate in the sport of ultrarunning.
To mention just a few people, not necessarily in order of running credentials:
There were plenty of others, but it is impossible to mention everybody.
"Good" runners compete for placement as well as for personal and official records. I have never been a competitive person by nature, which suits me well, because there is close to zero chance that I will ever win any race I might enter. I have always been content simply to do the best that I can for myself; noting where that falls on the scale relative to others normally is a point of secondary interest.
This ATY was the first occasion I can remember feeling differently about competing. As the race Web designer, I added names to the "Who's Coming" page as soon as they were registered, so knew well in advance who there would be to contend with. As I contemplated the shorter-than-average list of 72-hour runners, I concluded that there were two people on it I had absolutely no chance of beating: Jan Ryerse and Martina Hausmann, both world class ultrarunners. The rest were either unknown to me or persons I thought I likely would beat if I didn't wimp out. The race for the also-rans was clearly for third place. Normally, the only opportunity a runner like me has to finish a race in third place is if there are only three people in it.
One runner I was not sure of was Jack Menard. Whenever he saw me he would say: "There's my nemesis again!" He had been checking the posted standings and was referring to me, because I kept ahead of him. For a while I was only in fifth place. It was not until later, when I continued to hack at it consistently over a long period, that I began to pull ahead, and eventually into third place, a perennial tortoise in a field of hares.
For me the toughest race was with affable Ron Vertrees, who took a nap and awoke to find himself many laps behind me. He seemed determined to secure that third place for himself, so I began checking the board more frequently to make sure I maintained a safe margin. As I neared my goal I concluded that I would quit when I made it, but not until I checked the standings to see where Ron was, because I could have lost that place while sitting in a chair and watching him take it from me. He finished only 4.5k behind me, turning in a fantastic performance for a 66-year-old man.
Now that I have run the 72-hour Across the Years race three times and set what will likely stand as a personal record for all times, the question is: Will I do it again? Probably, but this is the first time I was not making plans on how to do better in the car on the way home from the race. It took two or three days for me to realize how much running Across the Years has come to mean to me, and what a loss it would be for me not to continue.
I've never gotten as much pleasure out of a race as I did from this one, due no doubt in large measure to being closely associated with its organization. I'm unwilling to relinquish that privilege.
There has been talk about doing a six-day race, possibly as soon as next year. I volunteered to do the legwork of researching that possibility myself, and have been doing my homework. At this time absolutely nothing has been formally discussed by the race committee. Suffice it to say that the question is on the table, and that it's being looked into. If it happens, it's safe to say that I will be there in some capacity — whether as runner or solely as an organizer is anybody's guess.