On the long drive down (it took nearly three hours) the rain lashed against the windshield of my jeep incessantly. When I finally pulled into the parking lot of the Hainesport Municipal Park, the rain had paused, the air was still, and the skies were gray and heavy. A moment later, I started running…
What had drawn me to this small town in New Jersey was the 12-hour division of the Hainesport Hundred and 12/24 Hour Endurance Run, an event put on by Vanessa Kline and John Swanson of Batona Trail Races/Beast Coast Productions. The race follows a roughly one-mile loop, which you repeat as many times as you can in 12 or 24 hours. I’d run the winter version of this race six months ago, achieved my goal of going 50 miles barefoot, and also made it 39 miles before eating or drinking. Why the aversion to shoes and food? I’m a student in the school of minimalism, where the motto is “less is more” and where we seek the thrill of self-reliance (“look ma, no hands”).
Now it was July, and I was back for more, and delighted when Vanessa greeted me with a hug. I checked in, received my bib, pinned it on, thought it read #85 but actually I was looking at it upside down. The number was 58 — same as my age.
I’d arrived in high spirits, but as I started running I found myself feeling sort of grim. It was no big deal, just a typical runner’s complaint — a sore hamstring, which I’d injured back in February and here it was still aching nearly six months later. Clear evidence of age. I know, cue the tiny violin, please — but seriously, I hadn’t done a lick of speedwork since last fall, hadn’t run a single step faster than a jog in ages. Training matters. I always want to do better, but today I’d need to thread a needle — get the miles done without antagonizing an angry muscle. All this was just another reminder that few variables in life are under our control. Very few.
To be honest, I often feel grim at the start of a big race, since I’m conscious of the large expenditure of energy it will take to complete the operation. On a loop-type course, the mental challenge is especially acute, because the scenery doesn’t change. It’s like running on a treadmill. There’s not much distraction from the work. At the December race I’d employed a special mental strategy — I made it a point to study my surroundings. I rotated around the course alert and observant, paying attention to small details (like the placement of soccer goals and the colors of different trash cans) until the loop came to feel like home. The strategy worked splendidly. But I did not have the patience to employ it a second time. This morning I started the race head down.
A few minutes later I looked up and saw the pickleball courts — which surprised me, as it seemed too soon to have reached them. Maybe I’d inadvertently cut a corner. I paused, looked around, saw another runner approach, waited for her to reach me. Crystal greeted me with a smile, remembering me from December. Yes, we were going the right way.
Some other runners from December said hello. But mostly I kept to myself and ran alone and tried not to think about the 49 remaining miles. The first principal of ultrarunning is to break long distances into manageable chunks. So now, I focused on one mile at a time. To be precise, one loop at a time. The loop is 0.9913 miles. Which means that it would take 51 loops, not 50, to complete my goal of 50 miles. Of course, you shouldn’t focus on that final extra loop when first starting.
Actually, as a barefoot runner, I have to focus on every step. The Hainesport course followed a paved trail, but there was grass along the sides, which was easier on my feet, and that’s what I mostly stuck to. But sometimes I ran a short distance on the pavement to avoid obstacles, or sometimes for a change of pace. The asphalt looked the same everywhere, but I discovered subtle differences. In one section (near the playground), the surface felt prickly underfoot, and every time through I had to slow down and adjust my stride. Whereas on the other side of the park (by a big puddle), the surface felt perfectly flat — on every loop I braced for impact and was surprised by the smooth sensation. The worst spot was the hard turn by the pickleball court, where the tiny pebbles in the asphalt seemed to all point up. Maybe the steamroller should have given this spot an extra pass.
I commonly run without food as a form of training, with the goal of freeing myself from dependence on sugary snacks (which seem to make so many people sick in today’s world of highly-processed nutrition). Even though I hadn’t eaten since the night before, I wasn’t feeling hungry. But I wasn’t feeling energetic, either. My state of mind was conservative. I was inclined not to spend energy unnecessarily. Honestly, I felt a little fragile. I thought of Scott Jurek hiking into Mexico’s Copper Canyon with a party of Tarahumara, the indigenous tribe famous for their running prowess. He commented on how they dropped into a squat whenever they weren’t moving — behavior which struck him as “a very efficient way of conserving energy.” Similarly, he watched their feet as they climbed, noticed how they moved without wasting any motion. “I was beginning to learn one of the secrets of this ancient tribe. It was the secret of efficiency.”
Thirty years before Jurek, the nature-writer Edward Abbey made a similar observation. He visited the Copper Canyon, sat upon a rock, watched the Tarahumara working on their farms below. “How slowly they seem to move among their huts and fields,” he remarked. It was, he thought, “life in slow motion.”
But what’s the rush? The Tarahumara live deliberately, wasting no movements; and when they run, they run all day, all day and half the night.
— Edward Abbey, “Sierra Madre”
Running long distances without food teaches me some of these lessons. This morning it felt like I was living in slow motion. I trotted along the course, head down, one 0.9913-mile loop at a time. Here was Crystal again. She was playing a song by the Foo Fighters on her phone. She’d seen them in concert at Madison Square Garden just two weeks earlier. It was a great show.
My spirits rose a notch when I finished loop 13, which meant that I was half-way to completing a marathon. Mind you, a marathon is not an impressive distance for a 12-hour race. But I track the number of races I’ve completed of marathon distance or longer (95 so far). So today’s run would at least count for that, if I made it that far.
The mileage was progressing, yet I couldn’t shake that sinking feeling. A glance at my watch confirmed my fears — my pace was dreadfully slow. It was that blasted hamstring — and all the sluggish training — and not to mention getting old. I thought of my sports doc, who was adamant, he never advises patients to take painkillers during a race. But then he admitted that sometimes he takes them himself. On the one hand, pain is valuable information which you don’t want to mask. On the other hand, a sore muscle can throw the rest of the kinetic chain out of alignment and cause problems to multiply. To take a painkiller in a race is to take a calculated risk. So now, I took one. And moped off on loop 14.
The other runners looked so strong. Everyone was passing me. One spry gentleman whizzed past me again and again and again. Erect posture, a slight lean forward, cushioned shoes tapping mid-sole, facial muscles relaxed and a positive expression. His performance seemed effortless. It seemed magical. It seemed like pure grace. This was Rick Lee, who’d just started running 3 years ago (someone from his club told me), and he was going for a national age group record. 64 years old. Whereas I was younger (58) and had run for much longer (43 years), and today I was barely moving at half his pace. Well, there’s no point in comparing yourself to other people.
I reached the marathon distance, took a break in a folding camp chair I’d brought along, and let my mind decompress. I felt slow, weak, and pathetic. I tried to give myself a pep-talk. “There are times to push and times to be conservative…. and as we age, it’s smart to be conservative.” Actually, I was rehearsing a speech. The one I’d give to Vanessa on why I was dropping out and leaving early. And then, coincidentally, she walked by and asked how my race was going. “Slowly.” She didn’t seem sympathetic (I wouldn’t have been either), so I changed the subject, asked what kind of adventures she’d been up to, since I could see she’d gotten some sun. She laughed. “I’ve been fake baking!” By getting a base (in a tanning salon), she wouldn’t have to carry sunscreen (every ounce matters). She’d just gotten back from a 300+ mile unsupported race in Tennessee. In two weeks she was heading back for a 400-miler.
I sat in my folding camp chair and considered alternatives. A few days before the race, feeling optimistic, I’d thought I might reach 61 miles (100 kilometers). This would be my A goal, I decided, and promptly scratched it. Running 50 miles would be my B goal. I scratched that, too. 30 miles (or 50k) would be my C goal. I was about to scratch that one, too, but then I realized it was only another 5 miles to get there. Not to mention I’d paid the registration fee to spend 12 hours on this course, and what precisely was I going to do at home if I left early? So I shook myself off and went back out. As I stepped onto the pavement, it occurred to me that once I got to 30 miles, 50 miles would be practically in sight.
The sun came out. I could feel the pavement warming underfoot. I saw Crystal again. She was shuffling along steadily, in good spirits, wearing an umbrella hat with beach ball stripes. I complimented her on her sense of style.
Maybe the painkiller was helping, as I was running along steadily now, feeling a little looser. I relaxed, leaned forward a degree or two, let my turnover increase naturally, aimed my feet at the soft grass and sometimes took a few steps on the pavement. Before I knew it, I’d finished 32 loops and 31 miles, and there was my C-goal — in the bag. At some point around this time, I heard an air horn. Rick Lee had completed his 50-mile run in a time of 6 hours 23 minutes and 30 seconds. He had set a new age group record.
So much in life is beyond our control, but certain decisions lie within our power. It had been my plan to run the full 50 miles without food, just to prove it could be done (of course it can — I’d done it once before). But I could also make a trade-off — let one goal slip, grab another. By this point, food was becoming a preoccupation. Each time I passed the aid station, I checked my pace and gauged my remaining energy. I pushed on through loop 36. I pushed on through loop 37. When I’d completed 38, I made the command decision and headed into the aid station, where the first thing I reached for was a slice of watermelon. My body absorbed the sweet red pulp like a wrung-out sponge.
I ate so much, I couldn’t run. So I walked. My watch showed a 3 mph pace. I used to power-hike steadily at 4 mph. But that had been in shoes. And several years ago. In recent weeks I’d worked on my barefoot marching style, while walking my dog Odie. He would trot dutifully alongside me, accepting the fact that he needs his exercise, too. He’s 95 years old (in dog years).
I walked along and finished loop 40. This was a big milestone — it meant my task was 80% complete. I started jogging again, until my stomach protested, and then it was back to marching. A few minutes later I pushed myself into a slow trot and then picked up the pace until I began to feel mildly nauseous. At which point the runner in front of me coughed, spat, bent over, and threw up. “Are you OK, buddy?” someone asked, while I strode past with fists clenched and eyes shut, trying not to follow his example.
On loop 42, I felt a a surge of energy — those newly-digested calories were ready to be put to work. But I withstood the temptation to sprint, with eight loops left to go (make that nine).
It had been sunny for an hour or two, but the clouds had rolled back in. Now it started raining. Cold drops flicked against my chest and shoulders. But underfoot, as I splashed along a stretch of pavement, the puddles felt like bathwater. Here was Crystal one last time, the umbrella hat shielding her face from precipitation. High five!
I fought through another loop. The surge of energy faded, but I was feeling loose and running easy. I celebrated the completion of loop 46 — my task now 90% complete, with only 5 miles left to go. A mile later I pulled into the aid station, got a cup of hot water, used a fork to spoon in some instant coffee, and took a moment to organize my thoughts. Let’s call the remaining work, “3+1” — three loops to reach the magic number 50 and then that final loop, the final sprint.
On loop 48, I fell in with a runner named Mark, who was competing in the 100-mile race. He seemed remarkably quick and steady. “Is this your first 100-mile race?” I asked, and felt immediately it was the wrong question. Indeed, he had completed 6 or 7 hundred-milers, he told me, and not only that, this summer he was planning to run in three big western races, each 200 miles or longer. He asked about my barefoot practice and sounded sort of interested. But didn’t think his doctors would approve as he has type 1 diabetes. That was something out of his control, but it didn’t seem to slow him.
Mark took a walking break, as he had all night to keep moving.
I whooshed around the park one last time.
At the timing tent Co-director John Swanson handed me a finisher’s medal and took my picture as I stood there in the rain, sopping wet and grinning.
(Later I would discover that I was second male, six hours behind Rick Lee. No other males had run that far. The overall winner of the 12-hour division was a woman named Jaclyn Shokey with 66 miles.)
I wandered back to the aid station for one last slice of watermelon. Then I folded my camping chair and gathered my gear. Looking up, I saw that the heavy gray ceiling had broken apart. A glowing cloudscape was revealed, illuminated by the evening’s final light. As if the celestial spirits approved of something that had happened here today. Or maybe it was coincidence.
Back in the car, I checked messages on my phone. A friend was heading out on an adventure and needed help getting to the trailhead. I reflected that here was yet another set of variables, mostly out of my control, but not totally. I checked the map, made some calls, adjusted my route to a new destination, and drove off into the humid darkness.
(Congratulations to John and Vanessa and all the runners and thank you to the volunteers. Photo credits: Beast Coast Productions)
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