At the start of December I started to think about my New Year’s plans, I had a couple of London party invites but New Year’s Eve is one of my least favourite evenings (those who know me well will remember the ‘smashed face after drunk-congo’ incident that saw in the Millennium, oh and there was the ‘drunk-Marilyn’ night; just 2 disasters that prompted both my hatred of the New Year and my eventual sobriety) and started looking at the ultra calendar to find a race to run. The US looked to have the only events to see out the year – and it seemed fitting to end 2012 in the same country I’d spent nearly a third of the year running across. So after a long time figuring out logistics, especially flights, I decided on the Across The Years race in Arizona – a State I’d never been to. Closely second was the Peanut Island race in Florida which I may look at another year (and it’d be good to catch up with Mike Melton who times that race.) Across the Years had good reports from various US friends who’d run before – including Mike, John Price and Juli Aistars. It was billed as a friendly, well-organised race and they were certainly right.
Having booked my flights pretty late I opted for flying in on the Friday night, starting running on the Saturday morning at 9am … running for 72 hours … finishing at 9am and flying out at 9pm on the Tuesday. This prevented me having to re-mortgage but may not (with hindsight) have been the best idea.
The week before Christmas I finally succumbed to the office cold and for the first time in a long time was confined to my bed – sinusitis had set in. Panic also followed that I really didn’t have long to get better! I was still sniffly and a bit snotty as I got the plane but had an ok flight and got to the pre-race hotel about 9pm… 12 hours to race start! Feeling massive deja-vu I headed to bed at the Comfort Suites, in a room that looked the same as nearly all my summer stays! Unfortunately I didn’t have a great night’s sleep – though I had already adjusted well to the time zone by having a very long day two days before and a big lie in on the Friday.
Breakfast was a little bizarre – a room filled with ultra runners I’d not met before but knew I’d be spending the next few days with, everyone looking rather apprehensive and most of them knowing each other. It felt a little like being in the room of a secret society that I was going to be joining. So I focussed on something I do well – eating, in answer to the question ‘what do you eat ahead of a 72 hour race’ I’d say muffins, bagels and some oatmeal. Having this race just after Christmas already helped the carbo-loading! Sitting waiting for the shuttle bus to the race venue about a mile away I met George Biondic and his wife who were lovely. I had 2 small bags, they had about 6 boxes and 3 enormous suitcases, so I asked it they were local – they’d flown from Canada and I was a little worried I hadn’t brought much gear. I later found out George won the 72 hour race in 2010 and he was using all his own food etc to prevent any stomach issues. Luckily I can eat nearly anything and so relying on the race aid station was not a problem – in fact when we got to the start the food and drinks available were incredible, I would not be lacking for anything!
I also met Tammy and Tristam Massie who wonderfully gave us a lift to the start rather than waiting for the bus – they ferried me to the airport after the race as well and are a really generous couple who helped me enormously, especially as I knew only a few people. Tammy ran the 48 hour race on the first 2 days (and placed 3rd) and Tristam ran the 24 hour race on the third day – a great tag team. Seeing Tammy on the third day helping out having run 130 miles was amazing, her energy is limitless.
We arrived at the Camelback Ranch – a large (140 acre) sports facility with 13 baseball fields, some with big stadia which is the spring training facility of the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. I picked up my packet with number and found my already-pitched tent I’d hired for the event, this was just one of the things that attracted me to the race – enabling me to go from airport to hotel to event without having to shop for a tent. The sun was just coming up and there was frost on the ground – though by the time we started at 9am it felt less chilly. The temperature changes in this desert race are definitely a large feature – it went from near zero overnight to about 20 degrees in the day, which was pleasant in the sunshine. Thankfully my friend Cat who lives in Surprise, Az (very hard to say without an exclamation mark!) brought me a sleeping bag and blanket which was essential.
At about 8:55am people gathered for the start, this was my first timed event over 12 hours and I’d not run for longer than 21 hours so felt nervous at the thought of running for so long. Though I like looped courses (can’t get lost, easy to get aid, always know how far you’ve gone) I was apprehensive about a one mile loop. It was clear most runners had run this event before – most seemed to have done the 24 or 48hours before if not the 72. I set off at my ‘I think I can run forever like this’ pace and completed the first marathon in 4:30, feeling comfortable. I knew I would struggle in the night section so putting in the miles in daylight seemed a sensible plan. Many were walking sections but I’m a rubbish walker so running as much as possible was also in my (rather sketchy) plan. One thing I hadn’t really decided on was my sleep plan – I was going to run as long as possible, then try to only get 45 mins sleep and go again. I got to 70 miles by 10pm and decided to take a break, it had been dark since about 6pm and I was starting to feel tired – I think the flight the day before took a little more out of me than I’d thought. Getting into the sleeping bag I just couldn’t get comfortable – my feet were sore from the gravel surface of the run route, it felt like a cheese grater had been used on them. This was to be a theme over the three days; I only had a couple of blisters but lots of runners suffered with some really nasty feet issues. I awoke just before 11pm and it was cold, really cold and I was even more tired so I decided to get more sleep and set the timer for 6 hours. With hindsight this was too much and I should have forced myself out at 11pm to put in a couple of more hours but that’s a lesson learned. So I got up very fresh at 5:30am and started running about 6am, running at a good pace and feeling great. I had gone to bed in 5th position overall, first woman but as nearly everyone else had run/walked through the night I was now 16th and 3rd woman. As I ran round a few people seemed surprised at my speed and I kept telling people I’d been asleep for a long time. I managed to climb back up to 10th position by 9am, and I’d made it up to 85 miles for the first 24 hours, down on my plan but not far off. Then day 2 started and we had lots of fresh-legged runners join for another 24 hour and 48 hour race. By now I’d run with a lot of the people on the course – my way to stave off boredom was to get chatting to everyone – and it was good to hear the various running histories of this group of very experienced ultra-runners. For example there was Ed in the jester suit who I’d thought was a bit of a joker, turns out he holds the record for the most marathons run in a year (135). Eoin Keith from Ireland was also good to chat to and we covered lots of European ultra events. Marie Boyd, an Australian living in California, was also great to pass the time with. I also chatted to many of the US runners – many who’d travelled far to get to Arizona too, and some who were fairly local. I spent some time with Paul Bennot, previous race director, and learnt a lot about the race. Also it was good to see Ed Furtaw (of the ‘Frozen Head Ed’ fame – he wrote a book about the Barkely marathons.) and chat about Barkley. Once again proving you can’t go anywhere without someone knowing James Adams…
The day passed fairly well though I slowed down a lot from my speedy start. Ian Sharman who I know from London turned up as well – to run the final day 24 hour race – so it was good to see him and catch up as he accompanied me on a couple of laps. As we got into nightfall the sky seemed to be getting cloudier and about 12pm it started to spit a little. For me that signaled my next big break. I’d taken a couple of 30 mins during the day to have my feet up but really needed sleep now. So I set the alarm for 45 mins and again struggled to get to sleep, in fact didn’t at all. So once again decided to sleep for longer and had a 5 hour rest; not much sleep but at least time off my feet. Again I got up well just before dawn at seven and by the 48 hour mark I was at 140 miles and not feeling any worse than at 24 hours (and as Ian commented I’d have won the 48 hour race with that).
So then the final day. It was again cold in the morning but the temperature got up and was about 20 degrees by 1pm. I ran ok though my feet felt beaten up. Early on I managed to trip over a tiny lip on the concrete – obviously not lifting my feet up very high! And I scraped my knees and hands with gravel. I was picked up by the group who were around me and with just my pride mainly hurt I went to clean up at the medical tent. So a change of clothes later and I was out again running, though mainly jog/walking now. The air was really dry and I felt a familiar dryness in my nose and throat. Whilst visiting a porta-loo I blew my nose and… yep started a heavy nose bleed. So back to the medical tent, where the kind medic commented that most people had come in with leg and foot-related issues but not me! He suggested I sit for 20 mins and he’d check on me again, I said I could walk a lap in 20 mins so off I was with gauze stuffed up my nostrils and a baffled medic shaking his head after me. I did a few laps like that changing the gauze every lap until it dried up. Then I remembered that Vaseline is great for stopping my nose drying out, a little late but still I applied some.
About this time as it was mid afternoon I started to re-evaluate my goal mileage. I had originally hoped to run 100 miles the first day and then over 50 the next two but it looked as though I was actually being more consistent – and sleeping a lot more than I’d hoped. With 85 the first 24hrs, 55 the next I had decided I would be content with 180. But I felt a lot fresher than I’d imagined on the third day and went to bed at 1am with 188 miles on the board. One of the reasons I managed so many miles on the last day (a total of 65 in the final 24 hours) was in part owing to staying up to see in the New Year at Midnight – which was great to toast the New Year (with non-alcohol cider though there was a Chamapagne option too!) and then do a lap with everyone. I went to bed at 1am and realised I could probably have done this the first night if I’d not been so tired from the flight. Though it’s hard to know if I’d had less sleep whet I could have done. I had 22 hours rest and sleep in the 72. Much more than everyone else – and ended up in 9th overall. A really good example was set by Martina Housman an 8-time participant at ATY and a formidable athlete. She can no longer run owing to bad knees so race-walks, and takes no sleeps just a couple of 20 min rest breaks in the whole event. She finished with just under 200 miles and it shows that if you carry on through the night you can rack up more miles going slower. I noticed that both Vikena and Charlotte who were second and third women spent a lot more time on the course than I did, getting probably less than 10 hours rest. As one runner, Ray K, said, ‘maybe if you slept less you’d run more…’ but as it was my first event of this type I’m glad I enjoyed it without feeling absolutely dead on my feet. Plus given how bored I get walking I’m not sure I could bear to walk through the whole night.
One of the great things about the race was that the loops meant you saw everyone a lot – and it was great to watch Joe Feyes and Eoin Keith battling it out and both getting over 300 miles, with Joe beating the course record (previously held by ultra-running legend Yiannis Kouros) and becoming the world record holder with 392 miles. Vikena Yutz beat the previous US record as well with 254 miles and Charlotte Vasarhelyi now holds the Canadian women’s record. Watching Vikena and Charlotte work together at the end to get them both over the their record marks was brilliant – I still can’t believe how cheerful and bright eyed they seemed on that last morning. Results here.
Thanks to Aravaipa Running for a great event – well organised and a really good atmosphere. My trophy and buckle are in pride of place on my mantel piece.
– experience a long timed event (check)
– get better at walking and night running (er, tbc…)
– try to run over 200 miles (check – I did stop at 200 miles with 90 mins to go, then decided to call it a day. But I wanted to celebrate by visiting the proper inside toilet (which I’d only gone to twice as it was about 30m off the course!) about a quarter of the way round the course so though if I was going there I might as well complete the lap… then Joe, Ed and Ray were still going round and I joined in with them, enjoying the banter and knocking up another 3 laps.)
– figure out a sleep plan; as little sleep as possible without destroying me (check but needs more work!)
I learned a lot. Especially about myself as a runner. I am a pretty good multi-day runner; this isn’t surprising given the summer I’d had, but I was pleasantly surprised how my legs hardly suffered, though my feet took much of the toll. In fact I’m so recovered I’m off to run a 50 mile night run tonight with a couple of friends. I also learned that a 11 hour flight takes longer than I thought to get over. I was pretty dehydrated and tired from the flight so only having 12 hours between landing and starting running is not enough.
Would I do it again? Yes. If I’d been asked half way thorough the second day, No. There’s a 6 day event next year so I might go back for that, or I might do the 72 hours again. I was intending to try to get quicker this year and do less ultras but I really enjoyed this event and think there’s a lot more for me to do.