Friday, September 7, 2018

ARFTA 2018 - Running with Legends - the Redux

This is not a young person’s race.  And, by young person, in this case, I mean me, at age 49.  This was ARFTA – “A Race for the Ages”, an age handicapped multi day race designed by none other than the master himself, Lazarus Lake, in order to give us youngsters a chance to run on something approximating an even running field with older legendary ultra runners.  As is the Laz way, there is funny and brutal thrown in at the same time.  The race is in Manchester Tennessee, Labor Day weekend – when the days can (and often do) get into the mid 90’s with ungodly humidity.  The meals…  are catered by Cracker Barrel.  (You just try pounding down some chicken fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, a biscuit, fried okra and maybe a piece of chess pie, and go out and run some more.  See what happens…).

I had heard about this event from its inaugural run in 2014 through my friend Patrick McHenry, and wanted to try it myself.  It ended up being my first multi-day event in its 3rd running last year in 2017.  Had so much fun running with legends that I came back for another go.

I came into this race with some big yearly mileage under my belt.  I’ve been running on average 100-120 miles per week since early in the year, and had completed 2 multi-day races (Across the Years 72 hour in Arizona over New Year’s and 3 Days at the Fair 72 hour, late May) since my first ARFTA.  I felt fully recovered from 3DATF, even with a couple of other shorter races thrown in.  Given the age handicapping, though, and the fact that the great Liz Bauer and runner extraordinaire Gunhild Swanson (a powerhouse still, in her 70’s) had significant head starts on me, I was not coming into this race with any expectation of anything other than getting lots of miles in. I thought it was vaguely possible that 3rd female was in the cards.

BJ had gone down ahead of me, as he was driving.  I was flying in on Thursday night, with the plan of spending some time on the course fraternizing on Friday before my race start on Saturday morning at 11am. 

After sleep on the plane and a good night’s rest, our first stop Friday morning was Team Nashville – a running store Bill Baker had introduced me to when I came down to run Locomotion 12.  The proprietors are Terry Coker and Robert…  I’d had a great time and bought some Altras when I was here last, and also got some Swiftwick socks as a gift – so I was back to chat and buy more socks.  BJ and I spent about an hour chatting with Robert and Terry, who had lots of questions about ARFTA.  I ended up with 3 pairs of socks, a cool new handheld which would also allow me to carry my phone, and several Team Nashville shirts, plus some great conversation.  And… onward to Manchester we headed.
Terry, Amy, Robert at Team Nashville

We arrived at Fred Deadman Park about mid-day.  There were already a number of runners on the course – some who had been running since 10pm the night before (The oldest runner was Don Jans at age 86!).  A lot of us youngsters just used the afternoon as an opportunity to meet up with friends and cheer on the older rock stars.  I ran into Michelle McClellan – a southern rock star who unfortunately was here with an injury; my good friend Dave Christy who was set to start that evening, and who crewed me to victory at 3DATF; said hello to the Mikes in the timing tent, as well as the young Ms. Cantrell’s.
Michelle McClellan, Dave Christy, and me

After spending a bit of time on the course, BJ took me for a drive to see a number of miles of the Vol State Course – another famous “Laz” race.  We had lunch at the Pickin Chicken, which I remembered fondly from my race at Strolling Jim (another “Laz” race, RD’d by Steve Durbin).  So many memories.  And it… was… hot out!

BJ welcoming me to Wartrace

Made a quick trip to Walmart for supplies.  With each race I learn more about what I need.  At Ethan Allen, I re-learned what I should have already known – which was, when I’m super hot, what I crave is something cold and milky – not solids.  I’d first run into this at Icarus where I survived on Coffee Coolattas, and re-learned it at 3DATF and Ethan Allen where I found myself craving milkshakes.  This time I did the right thing ahead of time and stocked up on faux Ensure as well as a number of Starbucks Coffee drinks.  I also got myself seltzer water and caffeine free diet coke, both of which have proven good thirst quenchers when it feels like I can’t stop being thirsty.  For food I just got some cheesy Chex mix and Pringles and figured I’d rely on any solid food available.

We went back to the course to pick up Dave Combs and Nicole (“Nikky B”) Berglund for a decadent dinner at Jiffy Burger (a must go if you are ever in Manchester!), and then spent another hour at the course before heading back to sleep.

Pre race breakfast was continental breakfast-a-la-RedRoof (waffle from that cool “make your own” machine, eggs, biscuit, sausage gravy).  My start time was 11am on Saturday.  It was hot and humid as soon as we stepped outside of the hotel on Saturday morning.  We made a quick Dunkin stop to ensure Mr. Melton had fuel, and then on to the course to get set up. 

Pre-race jitters weren’t as bad as last year, having completed 3 multi-days since then.  Nonetheless, I retreated into my own head and turned up the tunes to get into my running zone. 

At age 49, I got one more hour than I did last year.  The only other 49 year old starter was Michelle McClellan.  We took our pic together, and started off.

First miles are always hard.  First miles in a multi-day are a particular mental bitch, because you know just how much is in front of you.  Throw in starting close to noon on a Tennessee summer day and you have a potential recipe for despair. 

My training lately has been killer, though.  This is exactly what I’ve been training for – these super slow almost effortless miles.  I am used to starting out slow – it’s how I do most of my runs.  Mile one was something around 11:30-11:45 – which was exactly where I wanted to be.  There was a bit of stiffness and awkwardness in my legs but not too much and I knew now from experience it would work itself out pretty soon.

What can I say about day 1…  first couple of hours were slow, steady, and super hot.  Although I brought a hat, I chose to not put it on – I like having my head bare when I can.  Several hours into the race, clouds started to appear, and I think all of our spirits lifted as those clouds occasionally blocked the sun for a few precious minutes, and then for even longer.  The temperature difference was hugely palpable.  I started praying for rain. 

By 3 or 4, it was looking like I’d get my wish.  There was a super dark section of the sky, which had pretty much fully clouded over, and there were some rumbles of thunder.  I didn’t want to ruin my phone, so I threw my running belt (which had 2 bottles and my music) into the shelter, and just ran with a handheld bottle in one hand.  That was the last time I had music for the entire race.

The rain eventually did come – it was never a downpour, but it was steady enough to form a number of puddles and to cool everything down until it started to get dark.  This was a huge huge mental boost, since I knew once dark came, it would be steadily cool enough to run in comfort.

One of my mental dilemmas was how to handle mealtime.  One of the wonderful and horrible things about this race is that it is catered by Cracker Barrel.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m a HUGE Cracker Barrel fan.  I like Hashbrown Casserole, Sawmill gravy, buttermilk biscuits, fried okra, country fried steak and meatloaf as much as the next person.  Probably more.  Meals every 6 hours are also a great time so socialize with friends and legends.  However, last year I know I spent significant time off the course inhaling EASILY 1500-2000 calories at mealtimes, and headed out bloated and uncomfortable.  This was invariably followed, like clockwork, 2 loops later, by yet another slow loop necessitated by an emergency bathroom stop.  I came into the race estimating I could add on 10 miles to my total time by drastically curtailing my Cracker Barrel activity. 

So, when dinnertime came on day 1 and folks started herding into the Ada Wright Center, I stopped briefly at my table and grabbed a protein shake, downed it, and kept on going.

It was the right move.

8 hours into the race my GPS died.  So, at this point I was running completely sans electronics.  No music (gave it up for the rain hours earlier) and no pace on my wrist.  I felt naked.  It didn’t feel bad.

I don’t remember what time I started running with Sue Scholl but it was after the loss of electronics.  I was, at that point, doing somewhere in the 13’s.  From straight running, I had started taking mini walk breaks at the little hill at the end of the shaded sidewalk.  At some point Sue and I found ourselves running along together and I picked up my running pace to stay with her.  Although her running pace was more aggressive than mine, she was taking frequent walk breaks, so I was able to keep up with her pace during the run portions.  We found our pace steadily in the mid 12’s which for me was kind of cool since I had been in the 13’s with no walk breaks.  There was a lesson in there for me.  We ran together for hours, chatting about strategies for 6 day races (I’m running my first 6 day in December) and keeping each other from taking meaningless time off the course.  Those hours were amazing – but eventually I needed to let Sue go because I just couldn’t run at her run pace anymore.  Sometime after the sun came up the next morning, I stopped seeing Sue around the course for a number of hours. 

Although I was trying to minimize the “Crack” effect, I did have to stop for breakfast.  I just can’t pass up Cracker Barrel breakfast.  I had some breakfast casserole, a biscuit and I think a piece of sausage.  Lots of orange juice, and then back out on the course as quickly as I could muster.  It was yum.

And…  it was getting hot.  We are now on the morning of day 2.  I took off my singlet early in the day and ran pretty much the rest of the race in just my jog bra.  I’d packed short sleeve shirts and even arm warmers anticipating cooler nights, but I never got cool enough to need anything more than the jog bra.  My biggest issues at this point was managing the ongoing heat rash and chafing.  I’d developed some really angry looking spots on the inside of both of my thighs, and my girly parts were pretty unhappy as well.  I’m afraid Kim Durst’s kids got a bit of a surprise on a couple of laps as I stopped at my table to squeeze a handful of RunGoo on my fingers and stick my hands inside my shorts.  It hurt like a mother for a little while every time I lubed up, but after a couple of minutes really helped to manage the chafing.  As it got hotter and hotter, I’d occasionally try to cool off by sticking my entire face and head in the melty icy in my cooler, and then immersing my arms up to the shoulders. 

I hit my 100 miles in 22 hours and change, and finished the 24 hours with 103 and change.  It left me in a pretty good spot to hit my goal of 175…  which would be an ARFTA PR by 15 miles.

Morning on day 2 I found myself running with Dave Corfman – a superstar from Indiana who had set the course record last year at 210 miles with his running buddy.  I remembered being just in awe of them last year, keeping up a brutal pace hour after hour.  I was stunned that I was able to run with him.  As with Sue, it felt like a dance.  We’d found ourselves running together just because we were taking some of our walk breaks at the same spots.  Somehow we hooked up, and got in sync. We knew, to the step, where it was time to run and where it was time to walk.  For hours and hours and hours we ran together.  I got to hear wonderful running stories and some fabulously politically incorrect jokes that elicited groans and kept us moving in good cheer.  It became mid-day and beyond, and we kept moving – some of the only folks on the course running through the heat of the day, maintaining generally 15-16’s, telling each other that the sun would be going down soon.  It felt like a long long time before it started to get cooler, but eventually it did, and there was once again relief. We bypassed the Cracker Barrel dinner again – I downed a Starbucks for the 180 calories and milky yumminess. Neither one of us had slept, and at one point in the middle of the evening we grabbed a 5 hour energy to just give a little boost and bypass sleep a little longer.

Day 2 was where I saw my place ticking steadily upward.  BJ was giving me stats as I went by… I was 9th woman…. now 6th….  and on one lap went from 6th to 4th.  Gunhild Swanson, who had over 70 miles more than me was my prime competition at this point.  There was a magical moment when I went from 2nd to 1st….  and then I had to maintain that.  It was much much harder than it might have seemed, with a competitor like Gunhild.  She was always out there, always steadily making progress.  I didn’t dare let up.

I don’t remember exactly when I needed to break off from Dave, but there was a point where I realized I once again needed to run more slowly than he was running…  my body wanted to just do its own thing again.  I was sad to do this – having run together for so long, it was strange to be back out there by myself again.  I was feeling for Dave, took because his ankle had started to really bother him and he was trying to figure out what was going on with it.  But…  here we were, in the middle of night 2, with single digits left on the clock.  I wasn’t really sure how that happened.  I also don’t remember when I took my nap – but at some point late on day 2 I squeezed in 20 minutes of sleep.  That was the only sleep I got during the race.

Running with Legends
Regina Sooey
Richard Westbrook
6 am came and I was enormously happy for the pancakes and OJ.  And then…  it started to get hot. Again.  It was the last morning, 5 hours left on the clock, and I had work to do.  Gunhild and her friends were back out on the course, moving strong.  I didn’t, at this point, feel like I had a lot of strong left.  My hips and hamstrings were getting wonky, and I was just fighting the heat.

Around 9:30 or so I was really fighting exhaustion and sore muscles and couldn’t do more than walk.  I took off my running shoes and walked a lap in my sandals to get a break, just burning up, and it was a 30 minute lap.  This wouldn’t do.  I swapped out from my sandals into my Hokas (I’d been wearing my zero drop Altras for about 50 miles) and all of a sudden I could run again.  Just having that 5mm drop gave me enough of a feeling of rest in my hammies and hips that I started throwing down 16 minute miles again.  I hit the 48 hour mark (11 am) with 176 miles – a 10 mile PR for me for 48 hours, and I still had another hour on the clock.  As I hit 176 and passed the timing tent, Mike Melton called out “You have 180 looking at you if you want it… just need to do 19 minute miles.”  WTF???  I was all ready to crawl into the community center to get some much needed cool, and Mike is telling me 180 is possibly in the cards? DAMN him!!  Aaargh.  Instead of heading in for a minute to cool off, I staggered back on to the course for the most painful lap of my race.  Less than ¼ mile in I was dying of the heat.  I just wanted to sit down, anywhere.  But not in the sun.  I’d take a few steps, and just stop and look with despair ahead of me, afraid I would just fall down and not be able to get back up.  About ½ of the way around the course I passed Regina Sooey’s aid station, where Bill Page was starting to break things down.  He took one look at me and asked if I wanted a chair.  Yes.   Yes I wanted a chair.  I sat, and cursed Mike Melton and his “you can do 180” to Bill.  (Sorry Mike!).  I informed Bill that I most definitely did NOT have 180 in me.  Bill gave me a blue Gatorade which I chugged half of, and then used the bottle do cool my cheeks and my neck.  I staggered back out, feeling just the tiniest bit better.   Every step just seemed impossibly slow and unsteady. 

BJ met me about 100 yards before the timing mat where I informed HIM that I did NOT have 180 in me.  I was hot.  I just needed to cool down.  I needed to be done.  I felt awful.  I passed over the mat… 177 miles, 45 minutes left on the clock.  BJ says “you’ve got enough time for another lap”.  I shriek curses at him like a crazy lady and stumble into the air conditioning.  He follows me in (brave man).  He says “if you stop now, will you hate yourself in the morning?”.  No.  (Yes).  Damnit. 

“Ok – come get me in 5 minutes.”

40 minutes on the clock and back out I go.  I feel tons better after a few minutes of cool.  I’m not fast – but I’m not feeling deathly ill either.  I make steady forward progress, breaking into the occasional trot where I count to 20 before scaling back to a walk again.  There are 14 minutes left on the clock when I jog in my victory lap at 178 miles.  I raise my hands in the air.  I know I don’t have a 14 minute mile in me, so I am done. 

178 miles in 49 hours.  An 18 mile PR from last year’s race.  First female at a race I never dreamed I could win.  Miles and miles and miles of joyful steady running with legends and rockstars.  The love and joy on the course was palpable.  I am in heaven.
Me and my guy - after the race
Getting my trophy

Rock stars Joe and Kelley Fejes
Amy & Mark Lapa