Tuesday, October 6, 2009

North Coast 24-Hour race report (still evolving)

Writer's note: This race report will continue to be updated in the coming days.

It’s hard for me to write a thorough race report on the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (Oct. 3-4), because I’m still processing the entire experience. Also, I’m just not mentally 100% yet. My mind is a little foggy right now. But I'm a writer and so I'll write what's on my mind, regardless of how murky things still seem.

Standing at the start with ultrarunning giants around me: Scott Jurek (yellow shirt, white visor); Connie Gardner (white shirt); David James (black and red singlet), who led the first 119 miles of the race, reaching 100 miles in under 13 hours; ultrarunning legend Ray Krolewicz (gray shirt), who has more than 80 wins on his resume; Phil McCarthy (gray shirt) next to Ray; and fellow SERC members and ultra studs Mark Godale (yellow singlet, black visor) and Tim Clement (blue and black jacket and skull cap).

Over the 24 hours, I covered 130.67 miles--145 laps--finishing 7th among men and 9th overall out of a talented, deep field of about 110. My goal was 135 miles and a top-3 finish among American men to make the US 24-hour team. That may have been a bit too ambitious for a first-timer, but ambition is nothing new to me.

I reached the 100-mile mark right around 17 hours—an hour behind my goal pace. This was at about 2:00 in the morning. After the 100th mile, I downed a Red Bull and flew around the course for a few laps, before hitting the wall and really suffering for the remaining six hours despite another Red Bull. It was in those six hours that the story of this race resides. I covered those last six hours for the patients and families of Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, who I was running to support through my Run for Rainbow at the NC24 (more on that below).

Pretty early in the race. Photo by Mark Shelton.

First, the background. The North Coast 24 served as the 24-hour national championship. The race was run on a .9-mile paved loop path (10 feet wide) in scenic Edgewater Park in Cleveland, starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday and ending--you guessed it--on Sunday at 9 a.m. To the north and northwest, runners had a spectacular view of Lake Erie, a totally under-rated feature of Cleveland. To the east, a view of downtown Cleveland graced the eyes. To the south, you could see the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway and hear the sounds of cars zipping by. Occasionally, you heard a train. In almost every regard, Edgewater Park was a perfect venue for a 24-hour race--almost entirely flat and fast and scenic, too.

(My suspicion is that those who came to the race from other cities and states were surprised by what they saw of Cleveland. Like many out-of-towners I've encountered, they probably looked around and thought to themselves, "This is nothing like I expected!" Cleveland is so badly misunderstood and stupidly ridiculed and if people just came here and looked around they'd see that this is a beautiful area with so much to offer in the way of recreation, outdoor fun, etc. We have a world-class parks and recreation system with hundreds of miles of *connected* trails running through beautiful natural areas. The general perception of Cleveland is based not on reality, but rather on ignorance. This is no "mistake on the lake"!)

The weather was forecast to be pretty adverse—winds south/southwest at 19 miles per, rain, and temperatures dipping into the high 40s. This was a recipe for hypothermia. So on Friday I bought a Gore-Tex running hat and waterproof running jacket—all for $135. Of course, the weather experts were wrong. It didn’t rain a drop, though the wind was pretty fierce for much of the race. I’m sure the waterproof hat and jacket will come in handy some other time…. For most of the race just a few thin layers and shorts were enough.

This being a national championship event with money and membership on the US 24-hour team on the line, the race attracted many of the top ultrarunners in the nation. Before the race, I looked around and saw the likes of Scott Jurek, Akos Konya, David James, Jill Perry, John Geesler (48-hour American record holder), and others, as well Clevelanders Mark Godale (24-hour American record holder), Tim Clement (previous 100-mile and 100K national champion), Connie Gardner (national champion many times), and Debra Horn (all elites), and it was readily apparent that this event brought some serious talent. Ray Krolewicz, a legendary ultrarunner with 80something wins on his resume, was also there. Ray is a damn-good guy and a constant source of encouragement--just what you'd expect from a South Carolinian (I was born in SC). Everyone on the course was friendly.

I set up my bags at fellow Southeast Running Club member Tim Clement’s tent, which was about 200 meters from the start/finish line and directly across from Mark Godale’s tent (Mark is also a SERC member) and Scott Jurek’s tent. This was a great location, and I owe a huge thanks to Tim and his wife, Lisa, for letting me set up shop at their tent. Not bringing my own tent and having a crew were big mistakes. As I would learn, you can’t compete in a 24-hour without the help of others. Anne couldn’t be there for the entire event because she was with Noah (though they visited twice and couldn’t stay long because it was too cold and windy for Noah), and our extended family was tied up over the weekend and unable to help crew and look after Noah. So I was out there on my own.

There isn’t much to report on my first 100 miles, except to say that I listened to my iPod the whole way, enjoyed some small-talk with other runners, and really found peace in the scenery. I didn’t struggle too much during these 100 miles, except for a bad patch from miles 20-30. I really hit my stride at around mile 40 and for the most part stayed in a groove. I hit the marathon in 3:30 and the 50-mile mark in 7:27. As previously mentioned, 100 miles came around 17 hours.

After 105 miles, things got kind of ugly. Check out that crowd support, though! Photo by John McCarroll.

Around mile 105 things got ugly. It was at this point that I was very fortunate to have an expert crew member in Steve Godale, who had been crewing for his brother Mark and was now crewing for me as Mark had dropped from the race after coming up short on his hard-fought bid for the 100K team. Steve is a very experienced, accomplished runner, having completed many 100-mile races and a few 24-hours events with some impressive wins on his resume. So he knew what he was doing in crewing me and I knew full-well that I could trust him. His goal was simply to keep me going. He told me to tell him what I needed and he’d have it for me. Do not do anything but run, he kept saying.

With 105 miles down, it was now about 2:45 in the morning and my legs and feet were killing me. It was dark and many runners were resting in their tents while a few dozen of us remained on the course. It was quiet. Few were talking. I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that I had a little over 6 more hours to go. This seemed like a lifetime. My spirit was flagging. In times like these, you need a plan. And so I adopted a 10-minute run/3-minute walk program, hoping to get to 7 a.m., when I’d just walk the rest of the way. Ultimately, I made it only a few hours with the 10/3 program before I had a meltdown at about 6 a.m., changing into my Teva sandals because my feet hurt so badly and running a lap with them to Steve’s horror. Big mistake--Tevas aren’t meant for running. When I came back around, I changed into another pair of socks and shoes and put on a jacket to warm up and resumed running. I decided to get back to my 10/3 program and, somehow, I regrouped and re-focused on trying to get to 130 miles. Call it the grace of God. Steve was happy to see me back together.

A game of survival. This photo was taken near the end of the race. Photo by John McCarroll.

The last few hours were a game of survival. I believe that I probed the depths of my soul. I went places in my mind and soul I've never been. Never in my life have I been so stripped down, so exhausted, so beaten up. I couldn’t process much or make sense of much. All I could do was keep my legs moving—and barely. I wanted to reach 130 miles and kept trying to crunch the numbers in my head to see if I'd get there. But my mind was so shot that crunching numbers was a waste of precious mental energy. So I just ran when I could and walked when I needed to recover enough to run again.

When finally I realized that I had 130 miles in the bag, I began walking. Right then Kam Lee, a remarkable runner from the Southeast Running Club who I'm proud to call a friend, came up to me, offering encouragement and telling me to run it in. He was right--I should run it in. So I ran with him next to me, crossing the lap line one final time with only a minute or two to spare. I was now past 130 miles and decided to just walk until the horn sounded.

When the horn finally sounded, I was only about 100 feet from my bags and dropped the little wooden chip with my number on it that they handed me a while back. This chip would be how they'd measure the distance of my final lap. I sprawled out on the grass next to the course, basically wiped out. The dew was soaking through my shirt and felt good. Anne and Noah and our good friends Ted and Tami were there and they helped me back to my feet with Mike Keller, who'd also covered the 24 hours, assisting even though he too must have been exhausted and spent. We then walked over to my bags and got things packed up. I remember very little beyond that point, except that when we got home I showered and then went to sleep for a few hours. I remember very little of the car ride home. Anne said I slept most of the way.

Thanks and Gratitude
Along the way many, many people supported me. I owe a huge thanks to my wife, Anne, and our son, Noah, for their inspiration. I ran my best when they were there. Thanks to my family for their encouragement. With about an hour to go, my dad text-messaged me the following: “Go! Go!” My brother text-messaged me: “I’m very proud of you.” That says it all. Thanks to Steve Godale for stepping in to crew me when I needed help and to Tim Clement, fifth-place finisher with an amazingly strong 134 miles, and his family for their support. Thanks to Ted and Tami Friedman for the many, many ways they helped, including coming out to cheer me on and literally helping get me home with Anne and Noah. Thanks to all the members of the Southeast Running Club for their moral support, especially Mark Godale and Kam Lee. Kam ran with me the last few hundred yards when all I wanted to do was walk. Thanks to Marilyn McGrath and the Children’s Miracle Network team at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital team for their support. And, most of all, thanks to everyone--family, fellow runners/friends, co-workers, and others--who contributed to my Run for Rainbow, helping me raise what will be over $2,000 for the hospital. This money will go to Rainbow to support the hospital’s child-life programs.

I also want to give major props to race director Dan Horvath, co-organizer Joe Jurczyk, Connie Gardner, Jim Chaney (master timer) and many others who helped make the North Coast 24 a world-class event. I don’t think it’s possible to have put on a better 24-hour race. Once again Cleveland has shown that we know how to put on big-time races and execute the details flawlessly.

Congratulations to Phil McCarthy (151.5 miles) and Jill Perry (136.3 miles) for their wins. Phil and Jill were awesome. Jill in particular made an impression on me--her speed late in the race was crazy. Congratulations also to 81-year-old Leo Lightner (82.7 miles) of Cleveland for setting a new 24-hour record for his age group. David James, who won the 2009 Umstead 100 in record time (as did Jill Perry), lit up the course for the first 100 miles, displaying extraordinary speed and strength for such a distance. Congrats to him for running what may end up being the fastest 100 miles of 2009. Congrats also to my friend and fellow SERC member Tim Clement for his awesome fifth-place finish with 134.2 miles. To describe Tim as tough would be an understatement. I am tough as a result of exposure to guys like Tim, Mark Godale, and others who are tougher than I am. It’s a case of those who are great making you better.

Lessons learned
I learned many lessons at the NC24. Chief among them:
  • Next time I will have a crew the entire time and I will bring my own aid. The race did a great job with aid, but in a 24-hour race you need the exact foods that are going to work for you and then you can use the race aid as a complement to what you've brought.

  • I will also have a pair of shoes that are at least a half size larger. Your feet swell a great deal and you need larger shoes to accommodate this swelling—or you’re going to develop wicked blisters as I now have. I'm going to lose at least two toenails.

  • I will start my next 24-hour race in compression socks, which help stabilize your calves and promote circulation. It took me four minutes to change into my OxySox about 40 miles into the race.

  • Loop courses aren't bad at all. Going into the NC24, my biggest concern was mentally coping with the fact that I had to run a .9-mile loop for 24 hours. Turns out this wasn't a big deal at all. I never got sick of the course and the repetition never got to me. The biggest challenges were the time and distance involved--not the course itself.
What Hurts More: A 100-Mile Trail Race or 24-Hour Road Race?
Imagine two war zones. One is a war zone involving guns and maybe a few grenades. A lot of stuff is shot up and mangled badly--the result of lots of bullets and grenade blasts. The other war zone involves nuclear weapons. There's not much to see because it's almost completely bleak. The war zone with the guns and grenades is the 100-mile trail race; the war zone with the nukes is the 24-hour road race.

Right now I feel like I was nuked. I’m dealing with some serious bone ache in my legs and feet. Surprisingly, I have very little muscle soreness, which I've always had after 100s. This bone ache is a clear warning that I must not come back too soon. And so I’m likely done with racing for the rest of 2009--a tough decision.

Having said that, I look to do some crazy stuff in 2010! I'm going to gun for a fast time at the Lt. JC Stone 50K, a road race in Pittsburgh I did this past March, and may return to Boston in April. I'm leaning toward a return to the 2010 Mohican Trail 100, where I will defend after winning the Mohican this past June. The Western States 100 can wait. And, with a crew for the entire 24 hours, continued good training and a little luck, I believe that I can reach 140 miles in my next 24-hour bid…likely the 2010 North Coast 24.

My new motto: All in!


  1. You were awesome Wyatt. It was really cool to know you and be out there with you. I sure wish you had gotten your goals...for a good part of the 24 hours you were so strong I thought you would contend for the win!

  2. Awesome job. It was amazing to see you go by so often during the race.

  3. Congratulations Wyatt. I do remember saying hello to you briefly at the race -- twice I think. It's interesting to see what different viewpoints people have about the technique. You run on the opposite end of the race from me, and say that you can't imagine doing it without a crew and tent. I prefer to have neither one, but what do I know? I wish you all the best in all your continued running adventures.

  4. Great accomplishment, Wyatt. You worked so hard training for this, and then showed your courage when the going was tough.

  5. Super race! And I like your analogy of the 24 hour race to nuclear war!! It sure felt like it in the middle of the night when so many people had dropped out... One thing though is that I do not think you need a crew to run a good race. Neither Phil nor John G. had one. Instead, as you do more 24 hour races, you will figure out better what you need to bring and what you can use from the aid station. Also figuring out what pace you should be running so you don't crash and burn is the big key to running these races. As you saw, many favorites went by the wayside at the race. People seem to be more successful running slower and then maintaining that pace instead of running fast and then being reduced to a walk for hours... I think you will only improve if you stick with the 24s and will make the National Team no problem in the future. Good luck!