On December 31, 2020, I participated in the Hainesport Hundred and 24-hour Endurance Run, completing my goal of 50 miles. The run was notable for me: it was my 91st event of marathon distance or longer; it was my 6th barefoot marathon and 25th barefoot race and my longest-ever distance without shoes; and I ran this race without calories or fluid for the first 39 miles as a way to practice another dimension of endurance.
Before getting into my report, I need to give credit to race directors John Swanson and Vanessa Kline of Batona Trail Runs, who organized an excellent event: it was a perfect site for this kind of race, the aid station was well-stocked, the volunteers were enthusiastic, directions were clear, and given concerns about the lingering Covid pandemic, they managed to execute the event with reasonable social-distancing protocols that met the acceptance of local authorities.
The event took place in the town of Hainesport, New Jersey, and the course followed a 0.9913-mile loop through the local municipal park. This format requires a certain mindset, because there’s no distraction from changing scenery when you repeat the same loop 51 times (or 101 times for those going the full distance). In this report I aim to give you a sense as to what a loop-type experience is like — so come on with me, let’s go on a quick tour of Hainesport Municipal Park…
We’ll start out heading counter-clockwise. From the start-finish area, which was positioned across the parking lot from the municipal building (by the “Twp” on the map), the smooth asphalt path headed southeast for a few yards and then immediately turned hard left and pointed northeast. The first thing I noticed when starting the race was a bench sitting across from the turn, because there was a shiny brass memorial plaque affixed to the bench and two green wreathes placed upon it. Each time I passed the bench, I read another handful of letters until after several laps I understood the inscription was to Rosalina and Francesco Salerno and Viola and Philip K (I never quite made out the last name). You see, one of my strategies for running on loop-type courses is to observe my surroundings. It gives me something to do, and over time the course comes to feel like home.
In truth, it wasn’t until midway through the race that I started reading the plaque, because early on I ran several laps with ultra-legend Trishul Cherns. This event was his 281st ultramarathon. Now in his early 60s, Trishul has two goals to achieve before he hangs up his shoes — he aims to reach 1) a cumulative 500 ultramarathons completed and 2) a total of 50,000 miles raced. I asked would he time things to reach both goals simultaneously? The answer was an adamant “no,” as he already has 44,000 miles on record, so he’ll hit the cumulative mileage target much earlier. Bear in mind, Trishul has completed a number of multi-day events, including several 1,000-mile races. For this reason, his mileage is high relative to his event count, at least compared to other ultra-runners. For example, my 91 events brings me only to 6,000 miles. Trishul is an inspiration for many runners. I will always remember his comment from the 2016 edition of Rock The Ridge, when he shared his secret to successfully running so many ultramarathons — it was “to run with joy in your heart.”
As the photograph above shows, while Trishul was on the pavement, I chose to run on the grass. The asphalt was smooth, but it was also wet from heavy rains earlier in the morning, and with the temperature hovering in the 40s, my feet were feeling sensitive from being cold and wet. The grass along the side was much more comfortable — indeed, I couldn’t have asked for a friendlier surface. That’s not to say there weren’t occasional obstacles. Once or twice I stepped on a stick, and once I caught a toe on one. These are considerations for barefooters which shod runners don’t need to worry about.
Back to the loop — the path continued straight and passed along a soccer field. On the right, I saw a shed with several soccer goals stacked on one side, and on the other side four portable generators with lights attached. Three of these were from United Rentals, and one was from Terex Power. As you can tell, there’s plenty to observe, even in a municipal park.
After the soccer field, the path reached an intersection and turned northwest. There were two branches here which headed off to toward a residential area — I got a glimpse on the first path of a split-rail fence and homes behind it, while on the second I spotted two solar panel-powered streetlamps. At night some of the streetlights clicked on, but many did not. The sky was overcast, and the course was mostly dark, but you could still see where you were going from the moonlight that diffused through the cloud cover. I had brought a light but never felt the need to use it. If there was anything out there dangerous to step on, hopefully I would have seen it after running the same loop all day long.
Now, on the subject of things to step on, there was one point in this northwest section where I thought some gravel was scattered on the path, and on the first few laps I swerved to avoid it. Later on, I noticed there was an exercise station on the far side of the path and that the ground underneath the equipment was covered with shredded tire bits (or similar material). Then it dawned on me — this wasn’t gravel on the ground, but bits of rubber. I landed on some pieces and they were soft — that was a relief.
After the exercise station the path went behind a baseball diamond and into what I’d describe as a drainage area — on the left there was a concrete box situated in a boggy depression with an inch of standing water, while on the right there was a field of large black rocks. The path was raised about three feet over this sunken area, and here I ran on a narrow strip of grass about 3 or 4 inches wide between the pavement’s edge and the point where the ground sloped away. Then there was a right-hand turn, and the path dropped downhill by a couple feet. The grass in this area was also soggy, and the earth was soft — on my side of the asphalt I noticed the indentation from a vehicle’s tire, while the other side was wet and swampy. After a few laps, I ended up choosing to run on pavement here.
I also chose to run on pavement in the next section, where two sour gum trees standing on the left had dropped not only a tangle of branches on the ground, but a profusion of “gumballs,” which are their spiky fruits. Now, the spikes aren’t sharp enough to injure the skin — they look much worse than they feel underfoot, but even so you wouldn’t want to land on one, just like you wouldn’t want to step on a ping-pong ball. On my first few laps, I high-stepped through the gumballs, dodging them as best I could. Later on I decided the pavement was just simpler to deal with. Indeed, as I got used to the loop, I found there were some sections where I preferred the grass, and some where the pavement worked better.
Meanwhile, as I negotiated these various obstacles and paid close attention to every step, I was sometimes passing and more often getting passed by the other runners in the event. Every time the leader, Michael Gagliardi, whizzed by in his blue sleeveless t-shirt, he looked so relaxed. He ended up winning the race with 123.7 miles completed in 24 hours. I had met Zandy Mangold once or twice before through a mutual friend. Every time he passed me, we traded greetings, or sometimes just a grunt. He seemed to flow along effortlessly. Zandy finished in fourth place. The other runners looked strong — moving smoothly, at a consistent pace, with good posture, never out of breath, and they kept this up all day long. I was impressed.
As I mentioned, the day was cool. After getting warmed up, I picked up the pace a little bit and took off my shirt. Running shirtless is also meant to be an exercise in endurance, in this case it requires the ability to manage the mild discomfort of cold air against skin. Running shirtless would also help me stay cool and avoid sweating, which was important since I wasn’t drinking. Now, forsaking fluid is not a strategy for maximizing speed, but rather a way to learn to differentiate between serious and casual thirst. I’ve run in Death Valley in temperatures up to 127 F, and during the heat of the day I’d drink as much as 50 ounces of water per hour. But in cool weather, if I’m moving at an easy pace and not overdressed, I’ve found I need little or no water for hours on end. After three hours shirtless, however, I was starting to feel chilled, especially on those sections of the loop where I was heading into the wind. Too little stress can be boring, but too much can wear you down. Judging I’d had enough, shirt went back on for the duration, and once it was dark, a light-weight down jacket and knit cap, too.
Back to the path. Past the wet area and the gumballs, the path headed out on another long straightaway, this time heading southwest. There were plenty of things to see: more soccer goals in different sizes parked along the side (and sandbags, too, to secure them in place) — a blue trash can and dark-gray trash can side-by-side — a red water spigot — an open field beyond which there was a playground and school building. On this straightaway the grassy surface was firm and a little sandy, which meant it was well-drained and drier than other sections. This made it the best part of the course for me to pick up speed.
The straightaway ended with a slight bend to the left and then a T-junction, where the course took a left-hand turn and headed southeast. Here the path passed behind a pickleball court.
I’d never seen pickleball before, didn’t know anything about the sport, it was just a guess on my part. But the courts seemed a little small for tennis, and when I saw people with large paddles batting around yellow balls, I thought this had to be pickleball and later confirmed it on the park’s website. In the afternoon there were several games going on, but it was hard to get a close look because on the side nearest to the path the courts were screened by a fabric-covered fence (all I could see were the three entrance doors, two benches, and the path leading up to the courts on which there was a stick which I had to hop over each time past). But the other side of the courts wasn’t screened, so I could watch some shots and volleys from farther off.
After the pickleball courts, the path went past a playground with two blue tubes and a blue slide. During the late afternoon a handful of children were playing there, watched over by their parents. And then a short distance later, there was a skating rink, but surrounded by a fence so I couldn’t see inside. I never saw any indication it was in use, although at one point two or three people with hockey sticks were knocking balls back and forth on the pavement outside the rink.
Now it was time for the home stretch. On my last few laps, I just flew around the course, passing everyone in sight. Bear in mind, I’d gone without calories for the first 39 miles. During this period, my pace was steady but not quick. Not surprisingly, as time went on I began to feel tired, cold, and hungry, as my energy reserves ran down. I’d run the 2017 Rock The Ridge without food or calories — that was 50 miles, but I’d had a big breakfast before starting out. This time I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. In any case, 39 miles was enough for today. I stopped at the aid station for a cup of ramen soup, two hotdogs, and a handful of peanut M&Ms and thought of Epicurus (“the highest possible pleasure is conferred when bread and water are brought to hungry lips”). The next few miles were also slow, as I needed a chance to digest and let my stomach settle down. But after that I felt really, really strong — I felt like I was flying in a fighter-jet and every time I wanted to pass someone I punched the afterburners (like I’d seen a Blue Angels pilot do on a YouTube video). Just to be clear, running in a fasted state is not a strategy for setting personal speed records; rather the purpose is to train the body to more efficiently burn fat, rather than having to rely on sugary snacks. Intermittent fasting as a practice (with or without running involved) may be helpful in shaking the dependence on highly-glycemic processed foods that seem to be a cause of many health problems today.
Let’s finish up our tour, as we’re almost back to the start-finish. After a couple of right-hand turns, the path turned southeast again. It passed a red-brick building with green siding and a dark gray roof which housed the bathrooms, and then there was a hard left turn in a muddy spot where I left footprints each time through, and here was where runners had set up tents and chairs and supplies, and here was the aid station with enthusiastic volunteers, and finally the scoring tent and the start-finish banner where you listen for the electronic beep to ensure the system picked up your bib because you want credit for every single lap! And then it was back out again.
So that’s one loop at the Hainesport Hundred and 24-hour Endurance Run. There are some more details I could’ve shared — the colors of the Christmas lights in nearby homes, the flags flying in front of the administrative building, different styles of trash cans in the park, a few more turns and intersections — but I think you’ve got a sense now of what it was like.
Perhaps you’d like to give the loop a try?