I have a soft spot for timed races. Usually when I tell someone I’m doing a timed race, they react with horror and surprise. I understand that running a one-mile loop for 6, 12, or 24 hours hardly sounds appealing. But I find comfort in it.
At a timed race, I don’t have to think. I can zone out, clear my mind, and just RUN. I experience running in a very raw state. I’m not worried about falling, hydration, or supplies. I’m only focused on the trail ahead. One foot in front of the other. Forever.
This race was my longest timed event yet. Across the Years is a 72, 48, or 24-hour race over a 1.05-mile loop in Arizona. We registered for the 24-hour event, starting at 9 a.m. on December 31st, through to New Years, and ending at 9 a.m. on January 1st.
I had no idea what to expect. The longest I had run before this was 50k, and the longest time I had ever spent running continuously was eight hours. I was a newbie.
I had it in the back of my mind that the best I could aim for was 100 miles, but I really had no idea how I would feel past the 50k, or how my body would respond with lack of sleep. I have never experienced sleep deprivation while running, and I knew that 100 miles was extremely ambitious. So I decided to just do my best, put zero pressure on myself, and have as much fun as possible.
We drove up a day early with my sister Elizabeth (attempting her first ultra), Carlos (attempted 100 miles) and Shacky (attempting a distance PR). We would also be seeing my uncle Pat and Jason Robillard with his awesome wife Shelly.
We stopped by the race on the 30th and I was immediately excited by the atmosphere. Watching the runner’s circle, I wanted to start running right away. It wasn’t long before we saw Jason, who was doing well and going strong. We also caught up with Pat and chatted with him for a bit before heading back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we were at the race bright and early, eager and ready to run. I started the first few miles with Shacky, running comfortable and steady 10-minute miles. It was cold at the beginning, so I started in my sweater and jammies. When it warmed up I shed my layers. I was wearing the InknBurn cherry blossom set – my favorite outfit. I got a ton of comments on my InknBurn gear, and people wanted to know where they could buy some.
I found myself feeling thirsty as it started getting hotter, and I stopped to drink at almost every mile. Shacky was stopping every five miles to have some Thrive homemade, vegan pudding (a mixture of dates, bananas, cocoa, and coconut). Brendan Brazier eats this on his races. It tasted delicious and was very easy to digest.
At the 50k mark, I was feeling unbelievable. And I wanted to go faster. For my other events, I’ve always tried to pace myself in the beginning, just as runners are supposed to. But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling at the end that I had more in me (except at Los Pinos, which damn near killed me). I usually want to run further, and I always wonder whether I could have done it better or faster.
I’ve never been injured since I started running in 2007. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really fortunate, or if I’m not pushing myself hard enough. I have made great progress as a runner, but my body doesn’t seem to understand the high injury rate it’s supposed to suffer from. It refuses to break.
Another thing I’ve noticed at my past races is that no matter how well I pace myself, I seem to always hit a wall at the same TIME, as opposed to the same distance. So if I’m going super slow, I just end up with less miles logged before I feel exhausted. In any case, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to run faster. I sped up.
Running faster felt amazing. It actually felt easier to run faster than to run slow, which is probably because my “slow” muscles had already been working for over 6 hours. Activating new parts of my legs gave me that second wind.
I did a few sub-10 minute miles until Pat warned me that I was going too fast. I figured that when Pat tells you you’re going too fast, you probably really are. But still, I didn’t listen. I paused long enough to make a Facebook update stating that I might hit 100 miles after all.
Then at mile 45, out of nowhere, I hit a wall and I hit it hard. This was a wall I hadn’t felt since the end of my first marathon. It knocked me right out. Up until that point, I had been saving my motivational messages. Now I stumbled over to my folder and yanked all those papers out to read them all at once.
I was determined to keep moving, but it took me the same amount of time to run from mile 45 to 50 as it did to run the entire first 13 miles. I was half-walking and feeling miserable.
Meanwhile, Shacky was starting to feel an old injury act up, so he opted for a beer run with Jason instead. Pat was also suffering from a recurring shin splint, and wasn’t running anymore. I walked one painful loop with Pat before he decided to sit out. I kept plugging away, and by the time I was ready to run my 50th mile, Shacky and Jason and Pat were all sitting around drinking beer. I wanted so badly to join them.
Instead, I pulled Shacky away for one more lap, so he could run in my 50th mile with me. Then I sat down.
Until this point, I had remained vegan. I was eating fruit, tons of liquids, some vegetable soup, and PB&J sandwiches. I had also brought chips and nuts from home. But dinner at Across the Years was pizza. Cheesy and meaty pizza. They had volunteers standing on the course holding it out for runners to grab as they darted past, as if it were Gatorade. Every loop I made for at least 5 miles, I could smell it.
By the time I ran my 50th mile, all I could think of was pizza. And I was HUNGRY. Although I had brought tons of vegan snacks, I didn’t really think to bring any solid food for a real meal. And that’s what I was craving. A sit-down meal. No more aid station snacks.
I eyed the pizza and waited until there was only ONE slice left. Then I grabbed it. I wasn’t sorry, but I thought I should confess. So I went to sit over with the guys and let Pat make fun of me.
After my pizza break, I tried to keep walking laps. My legs were sore and the guys were just sitting around and chatting, making it really difficult to get back up and run alone. I really didn’t want to run anymore.
I managed to meet my sister as she was just about to complete 50k. I ran that last lap with her and took pictures. I remember when I first set my sister up with a Learn to Run program. She couldn’t even run for three minutes. Now look at her. She had a run a distance she could barely understand. I was so proud of her.
The ultra distance is an amazing thing. I told my sister: “No matter what has happened in your life before, or what will happen in your future, nobody can ever take that ultra away from you. When you’re an ultra runner, you’re a runner forever. You could go out the next day, join a gym and hire a personal trainer. And that trainer may not ever accomplish what you just did. You can flip through a magazine and pick out the most beautiful girl on those pages, and that girl’s body may never be as strong as yours. Her legs will never carry her this far. After an ultra, you are beyond beautiful. You are unbreakable.” She cried.
My sister would end up covering over 40 miles, logging over 100k during her entire stay with us over the holidays. She hadn’t trained for one single day for this. I surprised her with the flight to see us, and also with the entry to this race. Before this, she was running about five miles a week or less. But I knew she had an ultra in her. We have the same blood.
As a sat out watching the other runners, I was inspired by so many still fearlessly circling that loop. All different ages, different shapes, different goals. There were people who looked like they were 80 years old, and there was one 8-year-old boy who ended up with over 30 miles. Some people were slow, but consistent. One foot in front of the other. And they just never stopped.
I was amazed at the strength and resilience of the human spirit, and it seemed almost unfair to me that such strong souls should reside in weak bodies. Why can’t our bodies keep up with the resolve of our spirits?
Earlier on, Shacky and I met Sarah, a really pretty girl with long dreads. Sarah was running in minimalist Merrell shoes, so we stopped to ask her how long she had been running in them. She was embarrassed to say – only 12 miles.
It turned out that it was actually her husband and BRS member (username Abide) who had registered for this race, but he had become injured and could no longer run. She agreed to take his spot, even though she was only training for her first half marathon. She thought she’d take it easy, run a few laps, and see how she felt.
Sarah would take a break every so often to breastfeed her youngest child before jumping back on the course. She ended up with over 50k. Take that, half marathon.
In many of my motivational messages, people said I was an inspiration. But these are the people that inspire ME. I’ve done the training, planned the course, and eased into ultra running like an old man into a chilly pool. But these guys come up to a mountain they have never seen or imagined and look at it without the slightest fear. Then they say, “Meh… What the hell.” And dive right in.
I managed to stay awake until midnight, cheer in the New Year, and run one final lap with my Shacky, Jason and Pat. Then I crashed. I don’t remember falling asleep, but the next thing I knew I opened my eyes and it was still dark. All I could hear outside was the patter of feet – people were still running.
I crawled out of my tent, slipped on my shoes, and ran in my jammies. It was 5 a.m. The runners on the course were few but faithful. They hadn’t just crawled out of their tents like I had. They had been there for the entire night.
The vibe in the air was tired and subdued. No one spoke. All you could hear was the shuffling of feet and slow breathing. Just one foot in front of the other. Forever.
A few hours before the end, I saw one runner hunched over shaking his head violently, as if he were trying to wake up from a bad dream. We made eye contact and he exclaimed, “I’m hallucinating! I’m seeing shit that’s not there!” He hadn’t slept for two nights.
At 7 a.m. I saw Shacky. He was also still running, and hit his distance PR at the same time I hit my 100k mark. Shacky could only get a couple of laps in at a time because of his injury, but he still pulled out his longest distance.
I really wanted a Starbucks after that, so Shacky drove me to one. By the time we drove back, it was less than an hour until the finish. Jason was out padding his miles, running at an impressive pace. We hung around to watch the end of the race, and I finished with 101k (63 miles).
In the end, several people had run this event so many times in previous years that this year they hit their 1000-mile marks for overall laps on the Across the Years course. Ed Ettinghausen, who had called it quits after the first day, pulled himself back together and ended up in second place. We saw him on his last few laps with his wife.
Yolanda Holder ended up walking for 48 Hours and hit 100 miles. Kimberly Miller also earned her 100-mile belt buckle. And one girl who looked just like Kate Kift looped me about a gazillion times. I never saw her face – only her back as she kept passing me. The back of her shirt said, “Don’t be a pussy.” So I pretended she was Kate, and smiled whenever she passed, nodding at the wisdom of her shirt.
This was an unbelievable event, very well run, and a perfect way to spend the end of the year. I’m really proud of my mileage. I think I had it in me to hit 100 miles, but I definitely needed more time.
I plan to try the 48-hour race next year, or even the 72. Meh… What the hell.
Here is my video recap: