On September 1, 2012, I completed 41 miles at Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Run before dropping out due to a shin injury.
Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Run, an inaugural event sponsored by Race Director Willy Syndram and Dumass Events (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association), takes its name from the one-mile race course located at Camp Frank D. Merrill, an Army Ranger training base located in the beautiful mountains of Dahlonega in north Georgia. The crushed granite loop, which is shaped like a conventional running track that has been stretched out to a full mile distance, was run in a clockwise direction for the duration of the event, presenting runners with a breathtaking view of mountains in the background along the first half mile, then circling back to reveal the start/finish aid station at the end of the second half mile.
The phrase, “Poor decisions make for better stories.”, is the motto for Dumass Events and this phrase aptly describes my thought process when I showed up for this 24-hour fixed-time race with two preexisting injuries. I had spent the previous two weeks recovering from a mild case of Achilles tendonitis by way of intense foam roller exercises when I also became stricken with an excruciating pinched nerve pain in my left upper back that had radiated over my left shoulder and down my left arm. After enjoying several months of weight loss and considerable running improvement, the rug had been pulled out from under me, and I was a passenger on what Bruce Springsteen might refer to as a “Downbound Train.” Instead of taking a rest break, however, I soldiered on through these two ailments with my normal workout routine, since I could modify my running terrain to allow for the Achilles recovery and since any sort of physical activity seemed to lessen the pain from the pinched nerve in my upper back, which was always at its worse first thing in the morning or after periods of inactivity. On the morning of Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Run, my Achilles tendon on my left leg felt good, thanks to some Trigger Point exercises recommended by a local sports chiropractor, but I found myself wincing at the pain in my left upper back and shoulder during the drive to the race.
The pain from my pinched nerve gradually disappeared after I exited my vehicle at Camp Merrill and began to move about by carrying my supplies to the crew area and greeting friends who were also setting up for an exciting day. At 188 pounds, I was at my lowest weight in decades and wearing clothes in size medium. I had dispensed with my longtime tradition of wearing a black running shirt for the slimming effect in photos, and, instead, wore a bright, almost-florescent orange shirt that soon elicited comments from others about how they could spot me from a half mile away at the other end of the course.
|Photo courtesy of James Moore|
At 9:00 AM, Willy called everyone to the start line for a brief pre-race speech, and then sent us on our way. The runners, a mixed crowd of 24-hour event participants and 12-hour event participants, started out in a slow, leisurely fashion as is customary for long fixed-time races. I ran the first lap nonstop in 10:30 to gauge the terrain for good run/walk interval strategies later on. The crushed granite path was initially pleasing underneath my Brooks Adrenaline road shoes, but would present annoying challenges later on as small rocks found their way into my shoes despite my makeshift Inov-8 bandana gaiters that I had wrapped around my ankles. The small 10-foot overall elevation change on the course was not noticeable at first, but became surprisingly apparent several laps into the race. During the initial laps, the first half of the course was pleasantly shaded by the trees to our right.
|Photo courtesy of Dumass Events (Dahlonega Ultra Marathon Association)|
I had signed up for Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Run several months ago with the intention of running 50 miles as a training exercise for my Pinhoti 100 race in November. When Willy announced that he would award 100-mile belt buckles to anyone who completed 100 miles or more at Merrill’s Mile, though, I started faintly daydreaming about a chance to earn my first 100-mile buckle on flat terrain in 24 hours. On the morning of this race, I finalized my strategy. If I reached close to 60 miles by the end of the first 12 hours, I would continue to circle the course in an attempt to make the 100 miles in a day. If, however, I ended up earning 50 miles or so during the first 12 hours, I would back off and rest, earning a few extra miles later on by sporadically returning to the course in an easygoing manner. I knew that, if I had little to no chance of earning an actual buckle at this race, then a distance of more than 50 miles might be counterproductive to the training for my goal race in November.
I finished 11 miles during the first two hours with an almost effortless pace, and felt my confidence soar in the knowledge that I was earning considerable distance early in the race to keep in the bank for an easier pace later on. I refrained from drinking a lot of water during the early hours, because I remembered my tendency to become bloated with water retention during fixed-time races with short loops because of the constant access to fluids, but I did eat a gel or sport beans every half hour. As always, I loved seeing the same ultrarunning friends at this event, and I enjoyed having the chance to wave at others from across the course as I ran by in the opposite direction.
An abrupt energy drop overtook me just before the three-hour mark, when I had earned 16 miles. I dismissed my fatigue as a combination of my comparably fast early pace, my stressed recovery from my preexisting ailments, and the rising heat, since the sun was almost directly overhead, leaving the entire course without shade on a day with 89-degree temperature highs and 93% humidity. I was comforted by the fact that I had banked enough extra miles in the first three hours conceivably to achieve a 100-mile distance by covering only four laps an hour at a 15:00 pace for the remainder of the 24 hours. I joked with others that it was too early in a 24-hour race for me to be tired after only three hours, and then I took cautionary action by slowing down just enough to cover four laps per hour while the sun was overhead during the hottest hours of the day. If I felt up to the challenge hours later, I would hopefully be able to increase my pace when the temperature cooled again at sunset. For the next few hours in direct sunlight, though, the only goal was to keep moving safely with my 15:00 pace. I slowed to a deliberate walk, and, as I noticed that most other participants were walking along the course under the sun as well, I knew that I was not alone in my newly fatigued strategizing.
The slower pace did not alleviate my loss of energy, though, and I began to rationalize dropping out of the race as soon as I reached a marathon distance or a 50K distance. I regretted my decision not to taper for this race in a proper manner during the previous days. In fact, my weight loss and improved running fitness had caused me to ignore wise training policies over the past few months. Because I was always at a lighter weight each weekend than I had been the weekend before, I had been compelled to go out for tough training runs at faster paces to push the envelope each and every week without using every third or fourth week as an easy recovery period as per the advice of most ultramarathon training plans. As I slowed down and utilized run/walk intervals on this unshaded and increasingly hot course, I wondered if I may have finally found my limits. I tend to hit mental low points around the 15-16 mile range of ultramarathons, though, and my resolve to climb out of this particular mental low drove me to keep moving.
I encountered a friend, Philip, along the course during my energy ebb, and he encouraged me to keep moving and climb out of the mental struggle. Philip would go on to win Merrill’s Mile 24 with a distance of 102 miles, and it is a testament to his amazing character that he took the time to motivate me and several others along his way. I remembered Philip’s strength from months ago when I had paced him for a few laps at his Bartram 100 race, and I decided to follow his example by refusing to give up.
|Photo courtesy of Kirsten Nash Jones|
At the next half-hour mark, I eschewed the usual running gel in favor of a packet of chicken breast meat and a sweet potato from my drop bag. My mental state was quickly restored as I felt my energy and confidence returning. I passed the four-hour mark with 20 miles under my belt and a smile on my face. I stayed with my slow 15:00 pace under the hot sun and found that I could maintain the four miles an hour by walking the first half of the course to enjoy the view of mountains in the distance, then running most of the last half back to the main aid station at an easy speed. I resolved to make sweet potatoes part of my drop bag strategy for future races.
My upper back pain was gone, and, probably because of the flat terrain, my left Achilles felt normal. I kept my fingers crossed that the aches from these recovering injuries would not resurface, because I was having a tough time with the gradual beatdown that the crushed gravel surface was placing on my feet. Overall, the terrain was a blessing compared to most trail events that I have run, but small rocks had gathered inside my shoes, and, while no blisters were forming, the sheer annoyance of the rocks necessitated some mental toughness. I was not alone in my struggles, because most other runners whom I encountered on the course were also complaining about the rocks at this point. Even the runners with gaiters could not keep the small rocks out of their shoes.
|Photo courtesy of James Moore|
I was moving happily with more energy after the 20-mile mark, though, and my mileage accumulated steadily at my four-laps-per-hour pace under the sun. I counted down my laps aloud each time I ran through the timing chute just before the main aid station, and I enjoyed having my mile calls verified by the counters. The layout of the course permitted me to spend time with each and every runner along the course and share the challenge with old and new friends. I encouraged some runners, received encouragement from others, waved to friends on the opposite side of the track, and thanked the excellent volunteers from No Boundaries Multisport who worked the main aid station.
The next several miles were uneventful as I proceeded with my 15:00 pace. I finished a marathon distance shortly before five and half hours, I finished a 50K distance in roughly six and half hours, and I plowed forward, eager to reach the 50-mile mark. My hands started to swell slightly since my water and electrolyte consumption had increased in the heat, but I was soon able to bring the swelling under control by staying away from water or electrolytes during sporadic laps. When I heard the Army base music for the afternoon retreat ceremony, I stopped running, removed my running hat, and placed my hand over my heart while facing the flag before continuing my run when the ceremony ended.
My pace was becoming labored in the heat, and, as I realized that my current progress would earn me 52 miles by the 12-hour mark. Since this projected distance fell short of the 60-miles-at-12-hour target where I would permit myself to continue in hopes of earning a 100-mile buckle in 24 hours, I made up my mind that I would take a rest after 50 miles and count the day as a success with a long training run for future races. I would reach that 50 mile mark and then sporadically complete laps between rest periods with no added pressure. As I watched several other runners succumb to heat troubles and take extended breaks at their tent areas, I was proud of myself for soldiering on and working past my mental lows earlier in the day.
Pride comes before the fall. I started to feel a slight pain in my lower left shin during mile 37 while I was enjoying an extended nonstop run. I slowed down to a fast walk and initially dismissed the shin pain as a momentary discomfort. I walked another half lap before breaking out into running pace once again, and I was dismayed when the shin pain returned with more intensity. I had experienced shin splints in 2009, and my current shin aggravation brought my confidence to a standstill. When I finished mile 38, I walked over to the Sports Chiropractic Institute tent, and received an ankle adjustment from Ashli, the same chiropractor who had treated me during the previous week for my Achilles tendonitis and upper back pains. I was grateful for the treatment, and, when Ashli sent me on my way again, I ran mile 39 at a cautious pace and only experienced minor discomfort, so I continued to run through mile 40 with confidence until the shin pain returned in full force. I slowed to a walk and knew that my race was over.
I arrived at the end of my mile 40 lap and told the volunteers that I was going to end my day after walking just one more lap. For a while, I was able to walk pain-free, and I debated the idea of continuing to walk slowly until the 50 mile mark, which I was sure that I could still reach before 12 hours were up. When the shin pain started to intensify even during my slow walk at the end of mile 41, though, I made the choice to stop once and for all. The repetitive motion of 41 miles on flat terrain and long straightaways was too much for me on this particular day.
I had finished 41 miles in just over nine hours. I counted this as a successful training run for fall events, but knew that I needed to throw in the towel to allow for recovery in time for those fall races. This was not the distance that I had originally wanted, but 41 miles is hardly a failure when it comes to training runs.
I visited the medical tent once again, where another chiropractor worked a metal Graston instrument over my calf and informed me that my shin splints were probably due to a massive muscle knot in my calf. She advised me to ice my shin immediately and to take several days of complete rest without exercise, save for using a foam roller to work out the calf muscles. She warned me that my shin might hurt when I stepped back on the ground, and, sure enough, a shooting pain erupted in my shin when I climbed down off the table and walked a short distance to fill up an ice bag. I thanked Willy for a great race event as he gave me a finisher’s award in the form of a metal dog tag. I sat down for 15 minutes with the ice bag on my shin and felt a small measure of relief from the pain as I said goodbye to friends and got a ride back to my truck (Thanks, Leslie!). I drove the hour and half distance home and climbed into bed while my friends were finishing their 24 hours on the course.
I walked with a slight limp the next day due to the hurting shin. Aside from the shin pain, however, I felt no soreness whatsoever the day after my 41-mile run. This gives me a renewed optimism about my overall fitness and about my chances for success at the fall races. After an aggressive icing routine with foam roller treatment, my shin felt pain-free the second morning after the race. I am still taking a week of complete rest, since the combined red flags of the recent Achilles tendonitis, my pinched nerve in the upper back, and the shin splints have convinced me that it is time to take a short vacation from exercise at long last, even if I am bouncing off the walls by the end of the week.
Thanks to Willy and to the volunteers from No Boundaries Multisport for a brilliantly-organized and fun event in a beautiful place. Thanks to the Army Rangers for their service and for allowing us to run a race on their training grounds. I would have loved to have kept moving along on at Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Run, but my 41-miler was a good confidence booster on a hot day. 24-hour fixed time events will always be a challenge for me, but I had so much fun at this one that I have already signed up for the next Dumass Events 24-hour race in January. After all, poor decisions make for better stories.
See you on the trails.