“I apologize to the entire world for this.”
This is what I said when I was just about to break one of my rules: “Never run shirtless.” Well, I was about to run shirtless…the temperature finally had me agitated to the point where, yes, the world would see more than they needed to see.
I just finished my second loop of In24 Philadelphia, an urban ultra, really the only race of its kind, but I’ll come back to that later. I was inconsolable. I wanted my shirt off, my hydration pack off…everything was bothering me. This was only Mile 17. I should not have felt this bad at Mile 17. My pace was conservative, yet I felt worse than I had during any of my training runs.
Mile 17 was the first time in the race I almost quit. I told my wife I was shaving my “ultra beard” on Monday because there was no way I was going to make it to my goal of 50 miles. “I’m not a f**king ultra runner. This is not fun at all.”
To my wife’s credit, she did not try to fix the situation. She simply let me vent and told me she’d meet me on the course with a dry shirt later in Loop #3.
In24 is a repetitious 8.4 mile loop along the Schuylkill River. Philadelphians simply call it “The Loop.” I figured this would be a safer way to be introduced to the world of ultra running…more checkpoints, no chance of getting lost in the woods, home turf advantage, etc. Last year, I signed up for a local 50k but I had my appendix removed three days before the race. I knew In24 would be a longer effort for me, but the environment would be more controlled overall.
With In24, the only wild card would be the weather. Yes, a July race, so I knew it had the potential to be hot. I’d simply run slower I thought to myself as I prepped for this race. Well, Mother Nature made this a humbling day for a lot of us.
When my wife found me again, I was at Mile 21, and deliriously singing Tom Sawyer by Rush. I have no idea why this song was stuck in my head, but it was. I put on a change of shirt, but did not put the hydration vest back on. There were plenty of hydration stations along the way, so hydration was not the issue. However, this is when the sun came out, and it got blistering hot (91 degrees and humid).
My wife would check in on me from her bike from time to time, but she was not allowed to pace until Loop #5. Fortunately, she was near me when my nose started bleeding at Mile 22. This has happened to me before in hot races, so I did not panic. Luckily, I had a wet towel with me already, so I sat on a bench for a few minutes until my nose stopped bleeding.
Oranges and ice from medical tent. Bloody hell.
So, I continued, and finished Loop #3 with the occasional walk break. For a shorter-distance runner, walking while competing is a difficult thing to get used to, but EVERYONE was doing it today. In fact, with In24, you have 24 hours to go as far as you can. Some of the more experienced ultra runners ran two loops, then checked out to take their break, only to return at dusk to continue when the temperatures cooled down. To me, this felt like cheating, even though it was perfectly legal in such a race.
Therefore, I trudged on, and I started to figure things out during Loop #4. I found myself going back and forth with two other runners. I’d run .8 mile, then walk .2 mile. I’d pass them while I was running, and they’d pass me while I was walking. Seeing these two runners comforted me. We were in a groove together yet we weren’t running together.
After Loop #4, I was allowed a pacer; however, with a heat advisory now in effect, I was required to carry hydration with me. So, I went to the tent to get my hydration vest, and meet my wife who would be my pacer for Loop #5. I warned her that I would be slow.
On the West River Drive side, at Mile 38, I grabbed onto my wife because I was close to passing out. I almost went down a couple of times. She said I had that blank look in my eyes. I could not get my heart rate down no matter how hard I tried to slow things down. Thankfully, we were a quarter mile from the next medical tent, so we walked there. I figured, “Well, this is it for me…38 miles is pretty far. I’ll just call it a day.”
At the medical tent, I got my vitals checked, and the one medical technician couldn’t get a reading on my blood pressure. Something was wrong with the pump. I asked her if I was dead. The doctor took my temperature, gave me an eye test and a choice…go back on the cart or walk/run to continue on. Here, I almost quit, but said to myself “if I can just get through this lap, I can always go home and sleep, come back in the morning and get my official 50 miles in.” Again, that felt like cheating but it was not.
So, Loop #5 involved a lot of walking to manage my heart rate. Plus, I got really bad foot cramps at Mile 40 (the kind of cramps you get when you swim deeper in a pool). After fighting the cramps off, I did run it in at the boathouses to make it to the check point. I told race officials I was taking a break (at 42 miles). At the tent, we gathered things like we were leaving for the day. Well, my wife gathered things. I was useless. I told her I was going into Lloyd Hall to get cooler. However, on the way, I saw pizza and it looked appealing to me. It was the first time since the start that food seemed appealing to me. I ate it with childlike eagerness.
When I returned to the tent, I had a banana and sipped on a beer (a beer that was intended to be a celebratory post-race beer). Maybe it was the beer talking, but I told my wife I was thinking about doing the sixth loop. In the back of my mind, I knew if I went home, I would not be returning in the morning. I’d be stuck at 42 miles with that 50 mile mark dangling in front of me. One more loop. If I could just make it one more loop.
It was just before 8pm when I put on the vest and my headlamp. I checked back into the race: “I’m stupid enough to run another loop” I told a race official. His response: “Are you stupid enough to run two more loops?” Another race official gave me a piece of candy, and I shoved it into my hydration vest “just in case” I said and thanked her.
As I started Loop #6, the leader passed me. He was starting Loop #7. He looked amazing. He is the record holder in this race with 153ish miles. I was in awe, and so I started running. At first, I thought I’d run a bit, walk a bit, etc; however, I ran 90% of this loop. The temperature felt better (even though when I’d get in my car later, it would still be 83 degrees). This was the best I had felt since my 2nd loop. It was a pleasant surprise.
At this point, my wife was back on her bike, so she snapped this at Mile 48:
Running and feeling mostly awful, but not 100% awful
At Mile 49ish, I could see the Philadelphia skyline illuminated in the distance. I stopped to drink in the moment and I took a blurry photo (below) of the city. I love this city. I moved here nineteen years ago (nearly to the day) to go to graduate school. I’m one of the few students in my program that stayed. It is home to me. Here, with just over a mile to go, I got a bit emotional. I was alone. Most of my miles are done alone. Running has always been the glue that has kept me together over the years, but here, in this moment, I wept for a bit before bringing it home.
Blurry and teary skyline
At roughly 9:42pm, I crossed the checkpoint for the sixth time (50.7 miles). I did not feel euphoric, I felt relief. I checked out of the race and called it a night. I wanted to see my dog Harry.
When I registered for In24, my initial goal was 50 miles, but as my training progressed, I started toying around with the idea of going the full 24 hours. As this day developed, however, I realized I’d be lucky to survive 50 miles.
The atmosphere of In24 is amazing. As a friend said pre-race: “This is the Woodstock of running,” and she was right. I was a Lone Ranger, which is the urban ultra component of the race; however, there is also a five person relay, a twelve hour and 24 hour relay, as well as a midnight loop, and a 5k the following morning. A “tent city” emerges with the participants staking their claim near Boathouse Row. It becomes an instant community of runners.
The enthusiasm of the volunteers at the water stations was contagious. It is a long day for them too. Seeing the other runners and relay participants, some of which were friends, was a real boost during some tough moments. Also, the race is a festive atmosphere, and proceeds go to Back On My Feet, which is an amazing organization that incorporates running into the lives of the homeless. This organization helps the homeless think of themselves differently via running.
Running has been no different for me. Over the years, running has helped me feel better about myself in various ways. It has been my therapy. It has made me a better person.
I can’t say whether or not I would do another ultra, but as I said in my previous post, I know enough at this point to never say never. It was a humbling yet gratifying experience. I will say that I have never been this sore or felt so weak after a race. I’m not sure if it was the distance, the weather or both.
It was a roller coaster with the full range of emotions and struggles. There was never a sustained rhythm…it was darkest before the dawn, and I learned not to say “I’m feeling good right now” because that feeling never lasted.
I am ready for shorter races, and I am very ready to get back on the track again.
Notes: Foods I ate during this race: Gu (6), Chomps (2), Philly Pretzel, pizza slice, orange slices, flat coke (2), ginger ale, banana, boiled potatoes, water/Gatorade mix, Swedish Fish, PB&J (2), protein shake, ¼ Flying Fish Exit 4. My only wish for this race would be for an earlier start time: 10am in July is rough.