Monday, February 14, 2011

A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour Run 2/12/11 (Race Report)

On February 12, 2011, I completed A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour Run with a distance of 52 miles.

Photo courtesy of Perry Sebastian
Central Park is an expansive 85-acre ball park in Cumming, GA with a 1.03-mile paved asphalt loop that circles baseball fields and overlooks a disc golf course. The paved asphalt loop is an ideal setting for a fixed-time endurance event and, when the Windward Road Runners presented A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour Run with Feet Geek Technical Insoles as the sponsor, I jumped at the chance to test my ability on this course.

The race website for A Stroll in Central Park advertised the course as a flat asphalt loop, but the course was not entirely flat.  Instead, the path rose with a gentle incline at the race start, descended a gradual downhill leading to the outer baseball field, then slowly climbed back up to the end of the loop as the course was run in a clockwise direction.  I enjoyed the slight variance in elevation, because the gradual downhills allowed me to pick up momentum during a run and the hills gave me a chance to slow my pace for energy conservation. Runners were allowed to circle the course in either direction, so a change to the counterclockwise route in the final miles allowed me to work different leg muscles at different times.

On the morning of February 12, as I woke up and made preparations for the 45-minute drive to Cumming, GA, my energy level was at a low point.  During the past few months of Christmas celebrations and Atlanta snow storms, I had encountered a couple of speed bumps on the road to weight loss and I was having a difficult time staying motivated and positive.  Instead of tapering for this 12-hour event as I should have, I had completed a 20-mile run with my Galloway training group the previous weekend and struggled through that run with unexpected difficulty, apparently due to fatigue in my calves after racing the brutally steep Hogpen Hill Climb 17K on January 29.  My primary goal for A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour Run was to complete my age in miles, since I had turned 39 three days before the event, but I was wary of my ability to accomplish this goal as I dressed in my running clothes on this cold Saturday morning when I just wanted to stay in bed.

Fortunately, the weather predictions indicated a beautiful clear sunny Saturday, where the 30-degree morning chill would soon give way to 50-degree temperatures, so I expected a day of ideal running conditions.  To prepare for a cold start, I dressed in running pants, a long-sleeved running shirt, and a running vest, then placed shorts and short-sleeved shirts into my drop bag to change into as the temperatures warmed.  As always for my longer runs, I wore compression shorts to prevent chafing and I wore double socks for blister prevention after putting baby powder on my feet.

I wore a brand new pair of New Balance 850 shoes, my favorites for pavement running, and placed a second pair of the 850 shoes into my drop bag.  I never needed to put on the backup shoes in the drop bag and my fresh New Balance 850 pair went through one-sixth of their recommended running life on their first day of use.

I arrived at Central Park just minutes before the start and pinned my race number to my running pants as the Race Director, Lia, stood on a picnic table and gave final instructions to the runners.  I was not able to greet all my friends at the start, but I knew that I would have plenty of time to talk to each runner several times on the loop during this 12-hour event.

The race started in a low-key fashion as we were all herded to the marked race path next to the parking lot and aid station pavilion.  Since my Garmin watch only had a battery life of ten hours, I had decided instead to wear a lighter Timex Ironman stopwatch to help me pace the laps.  On my other wrist, I wore a GymBoss interval timer that I had learned to appreciate during my Galloway training runs, because it has a vibrating interval alert and the loud beep can be heard over traffic. For this race, I initially set the GymBoss for 3-minute-run/1-minute-walk Galloway intervals.

I began running with Richard, a friend who was planning to complete his first 50K distance at this event, and Daniel, who had recognized me from my previous online race reports.  For the first mile, I was able to keep up with both runners when I resumed normal running pace after each of my walk breaks.  I was relieved that the race course had more scenery than expected, since the ball parks were elevated above a disc golf course with subdivisions in the distance and a large water treatment facility that was under construction just past the park boundary.  A fierce wind gust greeted Richard and me as we circled four baseball diamonds to make our way back around to the aid station and several runners commented the freezing temperatures.  This cold wind that blew across the last half of the clockwise course would be an adversary throughout the day and I soon realized that I would not be changing into shorts or short-sleeved shirts after all.

The first few laps were pleasantly uneventful as I moved steadily with my 3/1 Galloway intervals.  As always during my recent ultramarathon events, I planned to take in 300 to 400 calories every hour by eating gels or aid station food every half hour on the half hour.  30 minutes into my run, I ate my first Crank e-Gel. I later realized that the variety of food on the aid station table was much to my liking, so that first gel turned out to be my one and only gel of this event.  My drop bag, which has my name printed several times in permanent marker on all sides and provides constant amusement for race volunteers, lay on the side of the path along with the drop bags and camp chairs of other runners, so I had easy access to the occasional S-cap or Band-Aid.

I soon realized that I was pacing myself too fast at over five miles an hour.  While this pace seemed comfortable at the time, I knew that a blowout was inevitable.  When I finished 13 laps, I decided to reprogram my timer for a 2/1 interval pace.  I must have started running faster during my 2-minute run intervals, because the change to a slower interval pace had only a negligible effect and I was still moving forward at a five mile-per-hour speed.

For the first few hours, though, I was all smiles and I enjoyed running along with friends, old and new, along each lap.  Jon, a friend and talented ultrarunner who frequently wins awards at races, passed me on every lap with a high-five and words of encouragement.  Drew, another fast ultrarunner, was focused with an eye on the prize for this event, but still had well wishes for everyone in his path.  Candy, a friend whom I had recently introduced to the Galloway program, was in great form throughout the event and we cheered each other on throughout the day.  Jenn, with whom I had run at Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon and the Atlanta Fat Ass 50K, was running with a co-worker as she trained for her upcoming Umstead 100-mile race.  Another friend and fellow GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) member, Vikena, was using this event as a warm-up for her Iron Horse 100 the following weekend.  These more-experienced runners would pass me frequently as I joked to others that they were running above my pay grade.

Sam and Lisa, a couple that I had known for a few years from my participation on a local music website where I occasionally write album reviews, had recently started competing in races and were both running A Stroll in Central Park with the intention of completing their first 13.1 distance.  For some reason, the sight of these friends that I had always associated with my non-running life cheered me up each time I encountered them on the course and helped relax my psychological game by reminding me that this fixed time event was intended for fun without pressure.  Sam and Lisa have made impressive progress as runners and I look forward to seeing them at future races.

At one point, I encountered Ashley, a speedy runner who had recently completed her first 100 race at Bartram, and her husband, Daniel, as they took aid supplies out of their vehicle.  They resumed running as I passed and we stayed together for a half mile, joking with each other and enjoying a fun-spirited talk about politics.  Ashley maintained a fast constant pace that astounded me through the entire 12 hours and it was no surprise to see her finish in a tie for second place behind Drew.

Megan, a runner whom I had met at Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run last summer, talked with me as she passed by early in the race.  When I asked her what her goal was for the race, she said, “52.4. That's two marathons.”  I replied, “I like that goal. Let's both shoot for that.”, although I knew that my own chances for running anywhere close to 50 miles were slim at best.

When I finished 15 laps in under three hours, fatigue settled on me and I knew that I had started out too fast at over five miles an hour.  When my stopwatch displayed the three-hour mark, the realization that I still had nine hours left to go fully dawned on me and I decided that even my modest goal of running my age in miles was too lofty.  I started to mentally berate myself for running 20 miles the week before instead of enjoying a proper rest taper.

I continued to grab handfuls of food every other lap on the half hour.  A handful of gumdrops hit the spot early on.  Some peanut butter sandwich segments appealed to me the next time around.  When I grew concerned that I was not taking in enough sodium, a plate full of beef jerky appeared on the aid station table at the right moment.  I love MoonPies and there was always a plentiful supply of them at each stop, so I took advantage of the opportunity to eat them without fear of weight gain.

I was ashamed that my Galloway 2/1 intervals were proving to be more taxing despite my intent for them to relax my pace and, when I finished 20 laps in barely over four hours, I hit the wall.  The GUTS group had set up an impromptu aid station area at the start/finish and I briefly sat down for the only time during this event so that I could put on my Zensah compression sleeves to relieve my aching calves.  Tom, a GUTS volunteer and friend, asked how I was doing and I told him that I did not have much energy left, but that I would keep moving.  Tom reminded me that I had willpower going for me and that I could reach 50 miles.

I walked the next two laps without running and was surprised that I was still able to clock 15-minute laps. I decided that I would do my very best to maintain that 4-mile-per-hour pace as long as I could.  I knew that 50 miles was a long shot, but, since I had told everyone in the days leading up to this event that I was going to run my age in miles, I was dead set on at least finishing 39 laps.  I felt sapped of energy and I did not know how I would do it, but I was going to finish those 39 laps or die trying.  After two laps of walking, I reprogrammed my interval timer for 1/1 intervals.  I was in for some slow going, but the relaxed interval times would at least get me running in some semblance again.  Brad, a friend with whom I had run at this year's Atlanta Fat Ass 50K, seemed to be suffering just as much as I was each time I saw him on the course and I was comforted to know that I had a partner in pain.

As the loops continued, the early afternoon sun gave way to warmer temperatures and I considered changing into shorts, but I always decided otherwise when the winds attacked me on the last half of the course and I started freezing again.  In the days following this event, my forehead and scalp would peel from sunburn and I would regret that I had not applied sunscreen during the run.  As I circled the course in the cold wind, however, the problem of sun exposure did not come to mind.

My GymBoss interval timer malfunctioned at this point with a blank screen and a constant vibrate. I could not get the GymBoss working again, so I begrudgingly removed the battery and took the device off my wrist. Shortly after I finished 26 laps and earned my marathon distance, I passed the GUTS area and returned my broken GymBoss to the drop bag.  When my friends asked how I was doing, I just shook my head and told them that I had nothing left at all.  Tom advised me just to run the downhills on the loop and walk the rest if I was too tired to keep going.  That advice sounded good to me, so I kept going.  When I encountered Candy on the course a few minutes later, she noticed my tired appearance and encouraged me to take a break from the asphalt by walking and running on the grass next to the asphalt path, as we had all been given permission to do.  I went over to the grass on the outer perimeter, because I was adamant that I would rather go a slightly longer distance on the outer perimeter than use the grass on the inside of the loop.  I felt instant relief as I ran on the grass instead of the asphalt and soon found that I could run for longer stretches and only walk the uphill portions.  I was obsessive about maintaining a 15-minute-per-lap pace and I occasionally increased my speed for an extra time window if I needed to stop for a bathroom break or refill water at the end of a loop.

A runner whom I had met at Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon, Heidi, had started running the laps in the opposite direction and she had a smile each time I saw her along the way.  I was walking for much of the course with increased exhaustion, so I marveled at Heidi's constant running pace where she never seemed to lose energy.

It is amazing how one small accomplishment can turn the tide and motivate a runner to keep going.  When I completed 30 laps and started along lap 31, I realized that I would beat my 50K time record by 40 minutes at the end of that lap.  This knowledge invigorated me, because I realized that, even if I failed to run my age in miles, I would at least be going home with a new 50K benchmark.  I was overjoyed as I finished that lap and, characteristic of my lifelong craving for attention and approval, I told everyone along the course about my new 50K time record.

Pain persisted, despite my mental boost, and I was still struggling to stay upright.  Fortunately, an ultrarunning friend, Lara, who had kept me company at previous races, showed up to volunteer the afternoon shift at the aid station table and offered to walk with me for a lap. Lara and I talked about our races and I enjoyed her recap of the Sweetwater Half Marathon that she had completed that morning.

Eight hours and 45 minutes into the race, I completed lap 39 and successfully accomplished my primary goal of reaching my age in miles.  Since the course was 1.03 miles long, I was informed after that lap that I had actually reached 40 miles in 39 laps.  I was relieved to still be attaining my pace of four laps per hour, so I did not stop to congratulate myself.  When I finished lap 40 at the nine-hour mark on my stopwatch, I made the announcement official that I had beaten my 40-mile time record by over an hour.  I now had two personal time records under my belt in one day.

As I reached my two new time records, I also reached a new level of exhaustion.  My legs were killing me after the 40 laps and, although I now felt confident that I could finish ten more laps in the next three hours to reach my secondary goal of 50 miles, my body had gone into a state of mutiny.  An ongoing blister in my left little toe that I had wrapped with Kinesio tape was hurting, I was increasingly shivering in the wind along the last half of the loop, and my eyes kept involuntarily tearing up.

When I passed the GUTS area after completing 42 laps, Kim, a runner who had just arrived at the park to cheer everyone on, asked me if I wanted some company, and I gratefully accepted.  Kim told me excitedly about her Freedom Run 10K race that she and her son had completed earlier in the day.  I was in a loopy daze as I congratulated Kim on her age group award and rambled on about my own experiences during the day.  Twice during the loop, Kim noticed that I had not properly sealed the cap on my Amphipod handheld water bottle and that drops of water were spilling on me.  Each time, I looked at my bottle with a blank expression and pushed the cap to seal it shut. Thankfully, Kim had been raising children at home, so it apparently did not faze her that she had to take care of one more child along this course.

Shortly before I completed lap 43 with Kim walking beside me, Jon passed in the other direction.  Jon, who had continued to motivate me with his kind words and strong pace, suggested that I try completing the loops in the opposite direction to give my legs a different workout.  I decided to take him up on this advice and, when I passed the start/finish aid station, I informed the lap counters that I would be changing directions. The relief on my body was instantaneous as I enjoyed running the extended downhill stretch that characterized the counterclockwise direction of the course.  The two hill climbs on the other side were steeper in incline, but it did not take me long to walk up each one and continue running.  I thanked Jon profusely the next time I saw him.  I relished the opportunity to see most of the runners in the other direction that I had missed repeatedly during each lap and each encounter elevated my spirits higher.  When I passed Jenn in the opposite direction, she asked me if the change in directions was working and I encouraged her to try it.  A couple of laps later, Jenn passed me in the same direction and exclaimed, “This direction is better!”

The sun set and darkness began to fall over the park.  I struggled particularly hard during a loop and, when a friend, Kat, ran by in the opposite direction and asked how I was, I told her that I was in a daze, but that I would keep moving.  Kat reminded me to eat something during my next pass by the aid station.  Another friend, Samantha, had arrived to volunteer at the race and I thanked her and her daughters for grabbing some Ramen noodles for me on two different occasions as I passed by the aid pavilion.  The warm food was a blessing and I immediately felt more coherent.

Disaster struck when I was halfway through lap 47.  I was enjoying a long running stretch without walk breaks as I was realizing with amazement that I would actually be able to complete 50 miles.  Suddenly, an excruciating pain shot through my left foot as my skin exploded inside my shoe and I felt fluid soak my socks. I cried out loudly and stopped in the middle of the darkened asphalt path.

The inside of my foot felt like it had been slashed with a jagged piece of glass.  For the next quarter mile, I could only limp along as I winced with each step.   I realized that a blister that I was unaware of all along had formed during the run and suddenly burst.  Jon ran up behind me and asked me what was wrong, because he had apparently heard me yell out.  I forced a smile and told him about the blister.  He sympathized, told me that this had happened to him before, and then encouraged me to have the GUTS volunteers doctor the blister when I finished the loop and reached the aid station.

After a half mile, I was pleased to discover that I could run again after the blister had fully drained.  I still felt a dull ache, but the abrupt stabbing sensation was gone. I now had two laps to go to complete 49 laps and, therefore, hit my 50-mile goal on the 1.03 mile loop.  I decided to keep moving without stopping to treat the blister, because I knew that I would not be able to resume running if I did.

When I returned to the start/finish area, Tom joined me and accompanied me for the reminder of the event.  I have always handled solitude well, but I was grateful for company so that someone could divert my attention away from my constant pain and exhaustion.  With Tom walking beside me, I finished lap 48 just after the 11-hour mark. I unwrapped a MoonPie as Tom refilled my water bottle and we joked with other volunteers as we set out for lap 49.  We cheered for Drew as he passed us a couple of times with another GUTS runner, Perry, pacing him for the end stretch.  When we completed the loop and returned to the aid station, the lap counter informed me that I had reached the 50 mile mark.  Tom urged me to continue for the duration of the 12 hours to have the time on my feet for training and I agreed.  I told the lap counter with a smile that I liked the idea of having 50 laps on the course and not just 50 miles. 

As Tom and I walked the course for lap 50, my ailing body was pulled along by amazement and disbelief that I had just finished 50 miles in less than 12 hours.  Tom repeatedly congratulated me as we discussed whether or not to keep going after this lap, when I would reach the 51-mile mark.  I realized, with Tom's encouragement, that the purpose of a 12-hour fixed time event was to take advantage of that full time to push myself for maximum distance, even if I had already met my goals beyond expectation.  I was happy as I crossed the lap counter line with 50 laps under my belt, but my watch informed me that I still had just over 20 minutes left before 12 hours were up. I kept going with Tom at my side.

A third of the way into my final lap, I broke into a slow run, excited that I still found the energy inside myself to run after 51 miles.  I slowed down to a walk for the first uphill climb, then resumed running.  When Tom and I reached the second and final hill climb, I told him that I wanted to keep running and bring it all the way home. As we ran up the hill and turned the final corner that would take us to the finish, I sped up to a faster pace. Just before I made it to the lap counter station in a near-sprint, I yelled out my race number in the darkness and was greeted by cheers from runners gathered at the finish.  When I stopped, the lap counter confirmed that I had completed 51 laps and had, therefore, totaled 52 miles.  Race Director Lia looked at her watch and informed me that she did not think that I had enough time for another lap.  I laughed and said, “Thank you!”, because the last thing in the world that I wanted to do then was to go out for another lap.  My body had finally shut down for the night.

I walked down to the main aid station pavilion and congratulated friends as I picked up my finish plaque and ate the best slice of pizza that I had ever tasted. As I returned to the GUTS area, the lap counter told me that I had finished my run roughly 100 yards short of 53 miles and that he could have my plaque changed to 53 miles for me if I wanted.  I thanked him for the information, but told him that I was happy with my official 52 miles.  I thanked Jon once again for his constant support as he rested at the GUTS area before going back out again to log some additional mileage in preparation for an upcoming 100-mile race.  I congratulated Drew and Ashley for their winning times and thanked them in turn.  I spent several minutes saying goodbyes before returning to my truck.

My 1.03-mile lap count for each hour of A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour is as follows:

Hour 1 – 5 laps
Hour 2 – 10 laps
Hour 3 – 15 laps
Hour 4 – 20 laps
Hour 5 – 24 laps
Hour 6 – 28 laps
Hour 7 – 32 laps
Hour 8 – 36 laps
Hour 9 – 40 laps
Hour 10 – 44 laps
Hour 11 – 48 laps
Hour 12 – 51 laps (52.53 miles)

Average pace = 4.37 miles per hour.

Thanks to the Windward Road Runners for putting on an outstanding race event.  Thanks to my friends, runners and volunteers alike, for making this a fun day to achieve my proudest running accomplishment to date.

See you on the trails.