Traveling to Minnesota the first weekend in June was for me a multipurpose journey. Since Motorola Computer Group decided in July, 2001, they would not be needing my services for the rest of my life, I've been obliged to be circumspect about choosing out-of-town races because of the expense and time away from my contracting job.
A trip to Minnesota is not hard to justify. My brother Dale lives in St. Paul, my mother is in nearby Northfield, and I have relatives all over the state. My mother is nearly 92; it behooves me to get to visit her whenever I can manage it, because each time seems more likely to be the last.
When I can work in a race on top of necessary family business, it makes the trip all the more desirable. Thus it was, in my desire to fit a 24-hour race into my schedule this year, that a trip north to run FANS and visit family seemed plausible.
In years past, FANS has been held in July. My brother, a cellist, spends nearly every summer in Chicago, playing in the Grant Park Symphony. Once it was verified that he would not be leaving town until after my desired visit, that I could stay with him, and that he was willing to shuttle me to and from the race and to visit our mother, most of what was left to worry about was air fare and the cost of not working while gone. Contractors don't get vacations; they get to be unemployed. By late January I committed to making the trip, and told my mother so she would have something pleasant to anticipate.
Overall, the experience of running FANS was delightful. It would be hard to find a more capable and hard working group of organizers and volunteers, many of them motivated not merely by the run itself, but also by the desire to promote the cause of scholarships for inner city youths, the noble cause in behalf of which the race is sponsored.
My approach to race day was less than perfect. I'm in reasonably good shape (for an old, slow guy), but had not done many ultra-scoped long runs in a while. I ran a marathon on May 1, and a six-hour training run on May 15, but that was about it.
My weight is down a few pounds from the first of the year, a statistic I'm happy to announce. But the last three days before the race a meltdown of willpower led me to eat twice as much each day as I normally do. I ate nothing the day before the race except two microbags of peanuts on the airplane, until I arrived at the pre-race checkin and dinner, where the food and Gemütlichkeit at the gathering induced me to linger and visit with running cronies both old and new, and as a consequence to continue eating more than is my habit the night before a race.
In addition, for a week before the race I suffered from a minor ear infection that would not go away by itself, resulting in a trip to a doctor, a less than pleasant ear cleaning session, and being put on antibiotics, which I was still taking at race time.
To top things off, I suffer from chronic right ankle soreness, a tendency toward Achilles tendinitis that seems always to be present, but never bad enough to prevent me from running. Sometimes it disappears entirely, most commonly during extremely long runs such as races, while during daily training runs it can annoy me significantly. Which would be the case at FANS?
Those minor physical problems probably contributed to slightly greater than average pre-race jitters, along with not knowing what the race course would be like other than it would not be ideally fast, what conditions the weather might bring us, and from hopes to set a significant PR at this race — by at least seven miles, but more if possible.
My brother's recently purchased home is comfortable. I had a room with plenty of space to spread out my gear and perform my pre-race ritual. Above all, the bed was wonderfully cozy. I was in bed by 8:45, scribbled in my journal a while, and turned out the lights at 9:15pm.
I arose at 5:30am, thoroughly refreshed and enthusiastic about getting to the race. I prepared efficiently, and Dale and I headed out the door in time to be on site by shortly after 7:00am. Fortunately, I did get one cup of coffee in me, which I drank on the way.
As I descended the hill from the Nokomis Community Center to the race center I met my first stranger of the day: none other than the great ultrarunner Sue Olsen, the legend of FANS, accompanied by her son John, born the day after she ran 100K in the race in 1995. He was there to run it himself for the second time. Race timer and statistician Gordon Chace has added the miles John traveled in utero to his lifetime FANS total. Sounds like a cool deal to me.
It didn't take long to locate an idyllic lakeside spot for my minimalist personal aid station. What I didn't realize until two or three laps into the race was that I set up 15 yards outside the line where the tent village was supposed to start. No wonder there was so much room. But it wasn't in anyone's way, and nobody said anything, so I just left it where it was. I had no tent, just a folding camp chair borrowed from Dale, not for the purpose of sitting (I hoped), but to use as a prop for the gym bag that held all my gear.
Pre-race talk by the race director was upbeat and minimal. At precisely 8:00am we were on our way, headed off on a 1.66-mile out and back first lap in the reverse direction from the rest of the race, designed to make certain round distances come out at convenient places.
A single full loop around Nokomis is 2.42 miles. To help runners keep track of how far they had run, they supplied us with lap charts in our race packets, but also had distances per lap posted on a big placard at the lap start.
The first time around a new course is the time to spot where there might be problems. I was struck by how similar the course is in some ways to the route on which Just Another Mad Dog 50k/50m race is run in Scottsdale, AZ — both in a park, mainly on sidewalks, including some zig-zaggy parts through shaded areas, and both around a lake (or two ponds in the case of JAMD). Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis is much larger, real (not man-made), and far more attractive. The route around Nokomis includes about a third of a mile across the arching Cedar Avenue bridge on unyielding concrete sidewalks. It happens to be in the flight path of commercial airlines descending and taking off from the MSP airport barely a mile south of Lake Nokomis.
The course had three officially sanctioned shortcuts across grassy areas. I wondered how many times I would miss the cones and go the long way, particularly once it got dark. By morning I knew the answer: three times. There was also one teeny bypass on dirt, booby trapped with roots. As I encountered it the first time a nearby runner said, "I wonder how many times I'll trip over that late at night?" Given that mnemonic cue, I managed to avoid that eventuality myself.
Personally, I'd rather run on plain asphalt, or ideally, on a hard packed dirt road, than on grass. Fortunately these sections were short. The third segment was dubbed "Mount Nokomis", because it meant a short but steep rise, where they put a sign at the summit that read:
- 8:00 AM Elevation 15
- 2:00 PM Elevation 150
- 6:00 PM Elevation 1500
- 8:00 AM Elevation 15000
By the early morning hours my quadriceps were so shot that I found myself declaring I would rather go up that hill twice than have to go up it once and come down the other side. Regrettably, that was not an option.
At the foot of that hill in the up-going direction was a charming water fountain fed by an artesian well and driven by a hand pump. I drank only a little bit from it, but did stop three times to soak my hat in water and wash off my face, arms, and chest. Refreshing.
Physical problems started early. My right ankle never did really loosen up the whole race, and is probably at least a partial cause of my failure sometimes to run completely upright, and to scuff the ground with my right foot. On the third lap Brenda Klein came up from behind, lapping me. "Lynn, you're going to wear those shoes out running like that." I explained that I couldn't really help it, that I'd worked on it for years. "It might help if you try running more erect." Not being one to reject good coaching from a superior runner, I promised to concentrate on doing exactly that, and actually did so for the next several hours. I'm sure it helped, but there is a point where physical exhaustion and inability take over.
Around 4:00pm, Dale, who does a bit of short distance running himself, showed up. He had been off to play an outdoor wedding in the afternoon, but now was ready to run a couple of laps with me. By the time he arrived I was going slowly enough that my pace was not exactly challenging. I'm glad he had an opportunity to be exposed to this world of activity that until then he had only heard me describe. He seemed sincerely interested in all the goings-on. After two circuits, Dale left, but said he would try to return late in the evening.
Before he left Dale asked: "So you won't be needing a tent?" Actually, he said he'd bring his, but didn't. I didn't need it for sleeping or for clothes changing, just for a place to stash gear if it started to rain. It had rained a few drops earlier in the day, and seemed to be threatening again, but I figured I'd get along fine without a tent, so told him not to bother.
Officially, my race goal was 90 miles. My 24-hour PR is 83.52 miles, set at Olander in 2001. I believed that with concentration and efficiency — meaning not stopping to rest and not tarrying at aid stations — I would travel well more than 90 miles, possibly even 100, the Holy Grail of 24-hour running, something I would love to do one time in my life.
By 11:30 race time (rt) (7:30pm) I knew 100 miles was out of the question. I would be somewhere between 48 and 49 miles by the halfway point, and there was no way I could equal my performance from the first half, much less better it. Such things are a physical impossibility in the world of ultrarunning. Anyone who gets a negative split in an ultramarathon probably did not perform up to his optimum ability. Even Kouros doesn't try to do that. But it seemed that I would certainly go well over 90 miles, and was delighted by the prospect. So far things were going fairly well.
It was about that time that I passed by my chair as the sun was going down and it was getting cooler, so I thought it would be a suitable occasion to put on a dry shirt, then put the shirt I'd been wearing over it. It had started to drizzle a bit. I had rain gear, but decided to leave it behind this lap. If it was still coming down when I came around again I'd put on the rain shell.
Big mistake. Silly me. I should have known better than to try to outguess Minnesota weather. A few years ago when I visited my mother on an otherwise beautiful and sunny day, we almost got caught in the dead middle of a tornado in early evening. I've never seen so much rain or such strong wind in my life. It turned black as midnight. The weather news on the car radio told us to stay far away from exactly where we were. It was hard to find a safe place to wait by the side of the road; in fact it was very hard to find the side of the road. When it let up we saw corn field after corn field flattened. By the time we arrived back at my mother's a half hour later it was still light and it had cleared off. I considered going for a run, And I would have if I hadn't run a marathon just three days before. What a crazy state. These things don't happen in Arizona.
I've digressed, but the experience, one of many weather stories I could tell about Minnesota, demonstrates the volatility of the climate, and how futile it is to assume we know what it will be like there just a few minutes in the future.
On this lap at FANS I took off feeling refreshed because I had a dry shirt next to my skin. Within ten minutes the sky turned black and the heavens opened up, replete with doses of Donner und Blitzen. In just a couple of minutes I was thoroughly soaked to the skin. So much for the dry shirt. And I thought about my rain shell sitting out on the seat of my chair, still in its carrying bag.
But it didn't get cold, so the rain was not unpleasant, just scarily heavy for a short while. I tarried a bit when I approached Cedar Avenue bridge, but others were crossing, so I forged ahead. My custom by that hour of the race had become to walk up to the crest and run down from the center and around to the outer aid station. This lap I ran all the way across the bridge. I stood no chance of outrunning lightning, but I could at least reduce my time of exposure in an open place. As far as I know the race officials never thought it sufficiently dangerous to consider pulling in runners.
When I returned to my floating aid station, I had nothing left that was dry, so I just geared up to live with being damp the rest of the night. I finally donned my rain shell, even though by that time the rain had slowed to a drizzle.
Then the clouds cleared, we got a beautiful sunset, the nearly full moon came out and lit up the lake with its beautiful reflection, and stars became visible. Still, I wore my rain shell for the next several laps. I'm no fool. I wasn't going to get caught again. Besides, I figured I might as well get my money's worth out of it. Living in Arizona, I've only had one other occasion to wear it in the three years I've owned it.
The race info document said would need night lights, so I brought both my LED headlamp and my halogen flashlight. It was pretty dark in some places on the course, and I was happy to have the light to guide me through the winding treed parts and to find detour cones, but I believe it would have been possible to survive without the lights.
I learned in the morning that Dale actually did return sometime after 11:00pm, but he learned I'd just taken off on another lap, so didn't hang around for me to wait for me to come around again.
One amusing anomaly I should report is what happened with weigh-ins.
I tend to underdrink and undereat at races, but never to the point of any danger. I was vaguely concerned that an arbitrary weight number might not tell the whole story in my case. Still, I didn't expect to lose out so much that it would be a problem, except that after eating too much for two days before the race, I was bloated and didn't really want my weight in that condition to be recorded as my starting weight, giving me less real margin. But what could I do? Roolz is roolz. At the pre-race dinner I stepped on the scale and grimaced as it checked me in at a gargantuan 183. (My real weight is presently 6.5 pounds less.) The first weighin of the race, checked every four hours, I dropped to 179, a loss of four pounds. Good — I wanted that. A much needed potty stop helped greatly. By the time I checked again, I had been eating and drinking faithfully at every aid station stop, and weighed in at 184. Ha! Enough of that nonsense. For the rest of the race I ate and drank only when I really wanted to.
The main aid station was plentifully stocked with good stuff, while the outer station was more like a convenience store. The sports drink offered was Succeed!, a sign that the menu was selected by someone well-acquainted with the real needs of ultrarunners.
Around 10pm I traveled three-fourths of a lap with Jeff Schnobrich, who is fairly new to ultrarunning. He complained of having an upset stomach despite drinking and taking electrolyte constantly. I asked what he'd been drinking. When he replied that it was Gatorade, I said: "There's your problem!" and proceeded to present a lecture on hydration, glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltodextrin, and why most ultrarunners carefully eschew drinks like Gatorade because of the fructose. Jeff had tried the Succeed!, decided it doesn't taste good (he's quite right about that), so had been avoiding it. Unfortunately, managing hydration and nutrition in an ultra is not about gourmet dining, but about survival. One has to get used to doing what is necessary. At the next aid station Jeff went for the Succeed!.
My secondary goal was not to sit down or take any rest breaks the entire race, aforesaid necessary potty stops being the exception. I came close to doing this in both my previous 24-hour races, and this time I almost made it all the way, but not quite. Finally, just after 4:00am (20:00rt), I headed for my still wet chair to take a load off my feet, after stopping to dry it off with a towel. I never came remotely close to falling asleep. According to my split times, the break added only twelve minutes to that lap. Then I was up and off again. I remained in motion the remainder of the race, albeit slowly.
That twelve minutes turned out to be critical.
Between 2:00—3:00am I found I could no longer run at all, not a step. I had begun to experience a recurrence of the problem that caused me to DNF Javelina Jundred at 80 miles last November. Simply described, one side of my back gave out such that I was unable to stand, run, or walk upright, but instead was permanently slouched over to the right, making me look like an abandoned rag doll. This was not painful in itself, but trying to walk fast in that condition became increasingly difficult. Running was utterly impossible. I was not merely tired, but temporarily crippled. It was adding an average of an extra fifteen minutes to my lap times from what it had been before.
At least I was not too tired to continue, and had no intention of stopping. But as I traveled I was seeing the margin of my anticipated PR dwindle rapidly. By two and a half hours from the end I no longer knew if I would make it. By one and a half hours from the end I was sure it would be a matter of a few minutes one way or the other at best. By one hour from the end I realized I was not going to make the PR at all, but it would at least be reasonably close.
Light comes early this time of year in northern regions. It was 4:30am when I first saw clear signs of light, and not long afterward could see clearly — a refreshing difference compared to the 13 hours of darkness I experience every night of Across the Years. In those early morning hours a thick and beautiful fog crept across the lake, accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus sung by celebrating frogs. Soon the fog burned off as the light returned. It was early Sunday morning, and the few drivers who were out stared with curiosity upon the steady parade of weary runners shuffling laboriously across the Cedar Avenue bridge wearing race tags at that unusual hour. Why weren't we all busy drinking coffee, making Norwegian waffles, and getting ready to go to church, like all proper Minnesotans?
In order to add as much precision as possible to runners' distances, at 23:00rt they open a 200-meter out and back channel from the start/finish line through the tent city. Those who want to can do another complete lap. (Or two, if they have the gumption.) I came through at 6:49am, eleven minutes before it opened up, plenty of time for another full lap, but not for two at the rate I was traveling.
When I returned, it was 7:37am, leaving me 23 minutes for out-and-backs. Counters stood at each end to take numbers and to click off times.
The sidewalk along this stretch is not wide, barely six or eight feet, just enough to allow a lane in each direction, with cramped quarters for passing. It was amusing to lumber among the exhausted runners who were still logging distance — around sixty of them. It was like watching a stampede of frantic cripples. At least we had an audience, as that narrow route passed through the area where everyone had pitched tents, so many observers, crews, and runners who had stopped were on the sidelines cheering the end vigorously.
I finished my last complete out and back and hugged my brother who was waiting and cheering, with a little over a minute left in the race, then as is customary in these races, took my place to cheer for the remaining stragglers in the closing few moments who were trying to squeeze out one more eighth of a mile. One final big hurrah, and it was over.
My final distance: 82.82 miles. This was exactly 0.90 miles short of a PR, and 1.30 miles more than my first effort. At least I'm consistent within that narrow range. I was disappointed that I didn't get the PR, but pleased I worked as hard as I did. And I'm obliged to wonder what the story might have been if I hadn't given in to that twelve-minute break.
In placement I found myself 23rd of 67 recorded runners overall — not too bad — and 16th of 50 males. There were only three runners between me and the first runner in the 90s, so even if I had made my projected goal it wouldn't have affected my race standing significantly.
Races of this type are not so much about winning, the domain of only a few, but about enduring. And so it is that ultrarunners enjoy camaraderie on the road, as those near each other help one another to endure and to do the best they are able under the conditions. Far more meaningful to me than any number in my race log is to be able to say I hung in there and did the best I was able to do on that day while in the company of people I like and respect.
The race had not been over for a minute before the attending medic, who identified himself as an ER physician, snagged me and asked, "So what's wrong with your hip?" I had been walking with my right hand pressing on my hip in order to prop myself up, so he naturally assumed the part I was touching was giving me pain or trouble. I explained the problem, how this was the second time it had happened, that I was a bit uncomfortable, but not in any pain, and that I believed that simply sitting down would cause the discomfort to vanish. We talked a few minutes, and he theorized I might have a spinal problem I should check out.
We headed up to the Community Center to get some delicious breakfast and attend the awards ceremony. We were joined by Susan Hart and Joe Gaebler, whom I know from their participation at Across the Years the last few years, both of whom ran superbly in the 12-hour race. Susan theorized that my problem may have been weak psoas muscles, and kindly offered to rub a couple of neuro-lymphatic points (new terminology to me) near the base of my spine, which she said can help the body clear out the lymph faster. This sounds like a reasonable explanation, it felt good, and besides, having my body rubbed by a nice lady seemed like a remarkably good idea at the time.
As I write this, it's two weeks after the race. It is still my hope to see an osteopath or physical therapist about this curious problem, though now that the immediate need for help has passed, it seems less urgent. But if I don't get to the bottom of it, I stand to experience exactly the same thing at Javelina once again this year.
One mystery remains: How was I able to do 180 miles in 72 hours just seven weeks after Javelina last year with no physical problems at all? It would be easy to blame the spine-jangling hills of Pemberton Trail, but except for the one rise dubbed Mount Nokomis, along with a couple of other gradual rises and falls, the FANS course around Lake Nokomis is nearly flat.
On the way back to Dale's I noticed a flag hanging at half mast. "Someone died?" I asked. Ronald Regan died Saturday, while the race was being run. I hadn't heard yet. "Finally?" I responded. Dale laughed, but I didn't intend the comment disrespectfully. I'm strictly apolitical myself, but recognize that the man led a most interesting life, a story worthy of telling.
Being in an ultrarace is such an all-consuming activity that the reality of important things going in the world around have little opportunity to intrude.
When I returned to Dale's home, I showered, slept like a rock about three hours, and when I got up to go off to visit our mother I was miraculously able to stand up straight again. Getting up and down those stairs was a bit of a problem the next couple of days. As usual, my feet were completely untroubled, except for one small blister that developed under the Elastikon, but that never bothered me during the race, and subsided without breaking by morning.
There have been very few races I have run that I outright did not like. FANS will go on my long list of wonderful races, being superbly well organized by some of the finest people in the world of ultrarunning, presented at a good time of year, in a beautiful location, to support a worthy cause. It's not a fast course; anyone whose purpose is to set a record, whether personal or official, will probably look for another venue on which to do it. But for a lovely day in the park it would be hard to find better.
In closing I convey my heartfelt thanks to the race organizers and volunteers for a job well done. May you have many happy repeats of this fine event.