So the first part of my 100 mile endurance quest is in the books – Merrill’s Mile 24 Hour Endurance Race!
I’ll provide a short, just the facts version, as well as a full race report for those less familiar with ultra endurance racing. So you get to choose because people like choices…
Short version – I chose the 24 hour option starting at 9am Friday until 9am. Saturday. Two incredible thunderstorms in between incredible sweltering heat – yes I paid to experience this! It’s a one mile paved loop. When all was said and done I covered 67 miles and some change and finished 3rd out of 20 in the 48 hour race and 2nd in my age group – winner was in my age group!
Full Race Report – This will answer a lot of your endurance racing questions!
Merrill’s Mile is held at Camp Merrill in Dahlonega Ga, an Army Ranger training camp. Today will be a family affair! My daughter Katelyn, and my two son in law’s, Seth and Sam, will be running the 6 hour option then cutting out leaving me running a true solo race.
Upon arrival we set up camp. This race is known as a timed event. This just means you try to cover the longest distance in a specified amount of time as possible. So yes, you can walk, sit, run, or whatever. So, many people set up a campsite with a canopy and chairs and if running the 48 hour version then some pretty elaborate campsites are set up on the infield of the loop. The advantage of timed events and running in circles is you get to go by your camp every loop. This means you can provide your own nutrition.
Nutrition plays a BIG factor in ultra racing. Food has a hard time digesting when your digestive system is shaking up and down for hours on end. Ultra race directors typically provide excellent food at aid stations. Excellent food if it rides well on your stomach that day! Otherwise you find yourself throwing up every so often, and do that enough and your day is finished as you must have the calories. Or worse, you may find yourself melting! You want to avoid a rumbly in the tumbly at all costs on race day. These calories can be gotten either through liquids like Tailwind, GU gels or real food – or any combination thereof. So it’s important that you practice your nutrition before race day as it has the biggest impact on performance. Be the best athlete in the world, in the best shape of your life but find yourself throwing up and having diarrhea every so often and even I’ll eventually pass ya! So nutrition is big!
So I decide to go the minimalist route with just a Rubbermaid tote and a cooler with water. I decided to use my cooler as a chair. In my tote are 3 changes of clothes, another pair of shoes, Tailwind Powder, Bread, Peanut Butter and Honey, Stax potato chips, a light jacket, a rain jacket, Saltines, Black Diamond headlamp and extra batteries, body lube,a buff for my head, and a few other essentials like band-aids, chap stick, handheld water bottle, etc… My decision with this setup will cost me dearly later.
I try to set several realistic goals for every ultra I enter. One that will stretch me a little and eventually one that stretches me a lot. For this race… To still be able to walk/run at 9am. Saturday. To race farther than I ever have, which meant anything over 50 miles. Then the one I really hoped to accomplish – to make it to 65 miles. Then the last was 75 miles.
We are called to the starting line. We’ve all been given a bib number that has an embedded chip on the backside so our laps will be electronically measured. For this race we also have ankle bracelets that also track our miles and I heard that live tracking was available for this race. That means you can log on and track a runners progress throughout the race – but I didn’t know that until after the race. This will also means you can see where you stand on a large flat screen monitor on each pass. Oh well. I need to take a break in the action to discuss Ultra racing strategy now that we’re about to start…
In ultra running strategy plays a key role. I’m going to be running a long time, at least for me – 24 hours. Every runner has to have a strategy, or I think they should have. Yes, you’ll need to build in some walking, but you need to walk with purpose – remember you’re racing. Get your walk/run/rest strategy out of wack and you lose. Then there is the heat and sleep deprivation. Do you want to take it easy during the hottest part of the day and then haul the mail at night? Possibly. Or would it be better to bank miles while it’s early and your legs are fresh? Will you have set timed rest breaks? How many? That’s why there is so much strategy involved in the Ultra world.
Back to the Race without Interruption
The funny part of an Ultra start is that when the starter yells go, some start running while others start walking – it’s back to strategy. I decide to start at a really slow running pace and just make myself stop and walk later. The biggest error made, in my opinion, in ultra running is starting too fast. So the saying goes, walk early and walk often and that’s what I did – I mean 24 hours after all.
And it was all going so well until it wasn’t. We start in sweltering heat so you are quickly drenched – no problem I heat train regularly by intentionally finding the hottest days I can to run. I also rain train, trying to run in pelting rain when possible. When you’re ultra trail running (over 32 miles) point to point, you must continue moving forward regardless of conditions.
But then, the rain came and came and came… Athens Alabama had not provided me the luxury of training in rain like I was experiencing and it was hitting me in the chest so hard it felt like piercing needles – and no I’m not being dramatic – it hurt! Normally you could see the entire mile loop from end to end but the rain had now blocked that type of visibility. 48 hour people could spare a little time and found cover in their camps with their canopies. I had no canopy and furthermore if I opened my tote to get any nutrition it would have filled up with rain water – lesson learned, I’ll have a canopy next time! I can’t afford the time to get out of the rain as I have no idea how long it will last. Then comes the lightening, where am I going to go? So I just keep racing. Then it lets up and what a relief not to have the rain pounding and pounding for I’m sure over an hour. I wait for the humid sun to return to bake me again and it does not disappoint! This means I will have time to change into dry clothes because I couldn’t be any wetter if I’d jumped into a pool. But by now my worst nightmare was transpiring…
My feet were soaked and so were my running shorts, then blisters on my feet, and chaffing of my inner thighs had begun. Don’t under estimate the pain of chaffing of your inner thighs. Oddly enough this is all part of the allure of Ultra running – whoever is willing to suffer the longest finishes the highest. You just have to deal with problems. Running in the North Georgia mountains as I did one year, and have a problem, there is no one there to help you when you get blisters or chaff or diarrhea or throwing up – you just have to deal with it. So I dealt with them by getting into new socks, shoes, shorts, etc… And so all was good again, and I was feeling fresh! Until…
Until the torrential rain hit again a few hours after the first monsoon. Now I’m in the same predicament again. I’m soaking wet, blistering and chaffing but I can’t change because it’s still raining cats and dogs – if I open my tote all my gear gets soaked – again note to self about bringing a canopy! Plus, I can’t forget I’m still racing and others are in the same boat. But if I can suffer longer then I might get ahead.
Nutrition at this point is stellar. I decide to drink Tailwind for my calories and use an S-Cap periodically for my sodium intake. I’ll later start eating some real food while drinking Tailwind. Worked like a charm the entire race and I must admit I had he best aid station food of any I’ve ever had – kudos to the RD. Food included watermelon, freshly cooked grilled cheese, humus burritos – really good and I’m not usually a humus fan, Ginger Ale (helps settle your stomach) etc…
The rain eventually quits and I get into my dry clothes once again. I’m feeling pretty good with my walk/run strategy and slowly clocking miles. But nightfall quickly approaches and the track is not lighted. So out come all the headlamps which looked really cool around the track. I haven’t stayed up all night on purpose since Jr. High and was wondering how long before this too goes south. I’ve decided not to sleep or stop during the race but keep moving forward no matter how slow it gets. I have also decided not to run using music just to make all aspects of the race mentally as hard as possible – ever tried running in a circle for 24 hours? Me either at this point. Surprisingly it goes pretty well, in fact better than expected as far as the night goes. My legs, not so much…
Somewhere during the night my quads get trashed. They have filled with lactic acid is my guess. So now I need to sit for the first time during the race. I know it’s going to be painful – little did I know how much. I get the the chair Katelyn has left me – that I didn’t think I needed – I was wrong and lesson learned. Problem is the chair sits really low and I’m tall. I can’t tell you how excruciating the quad pain was as I stretched them trying to sit down. Then I used my leg roller and tried to roll the pain away. They felt better after sitting about 10 minutes. But then…
Then something happened that I can’t explain, the chaffing started immediately as I started walking again. By the way, when the early morning hours came there was more walking than running, everything was so painful now. Oddly enough the chaffing quit after about 5 minutes of walking or at least I no longer felt the pain. But now whenever I thought about needing to rest, which I did 2 more times for about 10-15 minutes, it became a mental thing knowing the pain I’d feel while trying to get into the chair and the chaffing pain after getting back up. In total I sat down only about 3 times during the entire race.
Late into the race it became apparent that I would make my 65 mile goal. When that came and went by a couple of miles I was done! I was spent. To give you an idea, I like a 10 minute and 30 second mile. In ultra racing I like to start at about 11 minute pace and settle in on about 12 minute pace late in the race. On my last few miles I was clocking a few 30 minute miles and was personally impressed I could pull it off with all the quad pain, blisters and chaffing! I decided to leave an hour and a half on the table and take my 67 miles and take it to the house. I wrestled with just doing whatever I could for that hour and a half but felt I had made a good run at my goals and was satisfied, called Julie and Katelyn to come and pick me up and I said goodbye to Merrill’s Mile feeling this might just be the race that helps me retire from ultra running.
What I’d have done differently
Canopy, chair that sits high for my height, moleskin for my blisters, starting even slower than I did, walk more during the heat to run faster at night, long poncho so my shorts didn’t get as wet, take care of issues sooner than I did. Other than that I think for my first 24 hour event I got it close to dialed in.
At the end of the day
Was sore for the afternoon after the race, but was pretty good the next day as far as being able to walk. Blisters on feet are healing and all is good. The following day I was already thinking about my next race and how I’ll do it differently. Finished the Merrill’s Mile with 67 miles with a 3rd place finish out of 20 in the 24 hour race overall and 2nd in my age group. Shout out to the race directors for having the best aid station food I’ve ever experienced. Only wish this race was in the fall!