There was no tape to mark the finish, nor woo-hoo girls to cheer me on, nor a laurel wreath to put on my head like at Boston. Later, no times would be posted for me to check my rank in my age group, but there was little doubt in my mind that I had finished and that I had won. Less than 51 hours ago, I had toed the starting line for what I assumed would rank among my greatest physical challenges and one that would also test my mental fortitude. 55 miles in 55 hours in 5 states. Five 11-mile runs: one each in North Dakota, Minneapolis, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. My running buddy Scott was doing the same, for moral support, on a trail in North Carolina.
For a runner that has never run a distance greater than the marathon and that harbors few dreams of being elite or an ultra-marathoner, this represented a significant challenge and one where the outcome was not predetermined.
It is a great feeling to be a confident runner and to be in reasonably good running shape, to be able to add a bit more distance on a run in order to explore an unexpected item of interest or to be able to not worry about a wrong turn or a slightly longer route, or even to deal with a simple miscalculation made when planning a run or the inevitable math mistakes made while running. As I stood on the campus of North Dakota State University, I felt like I was The Bison. While my training was not what it should have been, I had reached a good running form, my weight had settled on a good number for carrying some distance and I had done a short taper.
Car door opens, I hop out and turn the GPS on. I am ready to go, but unlike most of my runs, exact mileage is important and I am forced to wait for the satellites to search the world and discover me here in North Dakota. Found. All zeroes on the dial. I think Start and press the button simultaneously, and the great adventure is underway. It is convenient to be the star today and have all of the timing tailor-made for me.
I break immediately into a steady stride. Scott later described his first run as “euphoric” and I feel good too. Athletes from many sports will tell you that waiting is the hardest part and that once you start playing or running or competing, the butterflies and other thoughts go away and the training takes over. The trail looks good: great. A few other runners out early on a Sunday morning: cool. Temperature: I am overdressed for the total distance but the extra shirt and the gloves provide a comfortable layer so far. Feeling: pretty good overall.
The checklist says everything is great. I am not wearing a heart rate monitor but my perceived level of exertion seems easy. It is as if I have jumped immediately to the middle of my run without having to breathe heavily, warm my muscles or gradually build my heart rate to an aerobic zone. I feel good and the running endorphins and I are one. Suddenly, I think about pace. Pace is important in runs. Many of us have a tendency to take all that accumulated adrenaline and those rested muscles and the excitement of finally getting going and we run early paces that are faster than they should be and that exact a price on us in later stages. I glance down and I am running slower than my everyday pace, but only slightly faster than what I think that my pace should be at this stage in the race.
Planning your pace on a long run means guessing and hoping that you are lucky. There is the expected case, the worst case, the case worse than that and then several more layers that you hope that you never experience. I know that my pace will be slower than my current marathon pace (which is already slower than it was just a year ago), but am not certain by how much it will differ. My intent, even though I am not quite in marathon shape, is to run the first couple of legs at marathon pace and then let the later legs find their own level – hopefully not too far above this. I know that I can carry this pace for 11 miles and I am hoping that the rest between runs will let me hold steady in the later legs. So I pull back just a tad and think about how easy this run is.
Run 1 is for fun. We all can do it. It is a distance that I have run on average once a week for many years and I have absolutely no doubts. And by holding back I get to take it even easier.
“North Dakota, I love running here.”
Afternoon runs are different than morning runs to me. They just have a different feeling. I do them so rarely that they are kind of exhilarating in their difference. But the key to this particular afternoon run is determining the lingering impact of the morning run. Without even waiting for the gun to signal blastoff, I spring forward from the parking lot of a Minnesota state park up and down a few hills, making decisions on the fly about which trail I should actually be following. My legs feel like I ran 11 miles, but like maybe it had been yesterday and they quickly fall in line. The late lunch caused by travelling here seems to be a bigger issue, but it distracts me from the transition of any thoughts of being tired.
Runs can be fun in almost all settings, but this looks like it is going to be great. The prairie rolls out to my left and there is a rock cliff to my right. I feel like I have been dropped into a “rave run” location in a Runner’s World article despite lacking the speed, good looks, youth or designer clothing of their standard choices. The air is crisp like a summer fall day on this Midwestern spring day. A haze obscures the distance and keeps the focus on the nearby beauty. The flatness of the land lets me see the trail a mile ahead and I run alone enjoying the run. There is no thought of failure this early – either in this run or overall. The great feeling grows even better as a light rain falls down, not so much on me, but all around me. Even though Scott had far warmer days for his runs, he would later describe the second run not as a challenge for legs that had run earlier in the day, but as the moment when we both realized that we might be able to do this.
My run ended miles from the start and those last four miles felt better than the morning miles and I felt my shoulders up high, my feet bounced off the trail and this seemed like the perfect run. My GPS regularly beeped another mile and my pace seemed steady: one that I could run all day. When I crossed 10 miles, I knew that today was fun, that today was easy, that today I won the challenge and I used a slight downhill to speed up and run it in strong. “I have 12 hours to rest before I run again so let’s burn off that last drop of adrenaline.”
“Minnesota, I love running here.”
Twenty-four hours earlier I had begun the 55-mile adventure with a run beside the Missouri River in Fargo, North Dakota, and now I faced a much broader Missouri River in northwestern Iowa. Some days when I run the day after a long run, I feel the previous run when I get out of bed or sit in a chair for too long at the office. Other days I only feel it once I begin to run. And so it was today. There was, to use Scott’s terminology – yes, he is still there on day 2 so I really have little choice but to continue – there was a bit of an “ouch” moment, when the anticipated pain and suffering hints that it may visit soon. But the only remedy is to face it head-on and do the opposite of what pain tells you: run. And so I put the Missouri off my shoulder and put one foot forward and the other naturally follows and off I go. In 50 feet I feel better. At a mile, I am running a normal stride and it feels little different than as if I had done a normal run the day before. The regenerative effects of a little time off for a trained and conditioned body amazes me.
When the crazy idea of celebrating my 55th birthday with something that had a lot of 5’s first originated, I thought that I would try to run 1 mile every hour for 55 hours. The idea of night running with a headlight seemed sufficiently fun alone. But while the mileage seemed high, the greater challenge appeared to be not really sleeping for 2 days. I thought that one mile every hour offered the greatest possibility of success. A much younger Scott & I mulled this idea over, but we also talked about some of the small relay groups or Run across America or the Sahara or wherever people would run marathon distance day after day. Could we do that? How long would we last? What sort of training would it require? From that we considered the realm of our capabilities and the mathematics of the age and sheer distance. The obvious answer for 55 miles was 2 runs each of the first 2 days and 1 on the morning of the last. By running the first and the 55th hours, we could extend the time – pushing that final rest period outside of our counted hours. So we settled on 5 runs of 11 miles as the best approach, but I considered it more of a possible idea than a plan. Scott heard it differently.
A month before my birthday, life moved me to the plains and so any idea of a run together was disrupted. I took advantage of my isolation and started working myself back into shape with 9-11 mile runs. I had run 55 miles in one week only 5 times in the prior 5 years and now I was leaning towards doing it in 55 hours. I decided to add one more story-telling element to it and do each run in a different state. That wouldn’t qualify me for the 50-state marathon club, but it was definitely not common.
As the date approached and I waivered on my commitment, my level of fitness, my desire and the general sanity of the proposition, Scott appeared to grow more and more excited about me doing it - and him too! I considered other ideas like switching miles to kilometers, or five 5-mile runs in 5 states or one that was both challenging and fun: running 11 miles on the first five days of May in 5 states, drinking a margarita in each state and finishing on cinco de mayo. Ah but cursed running buddies say it’s okay to change your plans, but they also cause you to judge yourself. So here I was on the eastern bank of the Missouri River in Iowa. Running.
“Iowa, I love running here.”
Part of a quote from the SW corner of the Cornhusker football stadium in Lincoln:
“In the deed the glory” – And this run, when done, would bring glory to Scott and me – self-directed, of course.
I ran about 2 steps before my heart rate jumped up. My body was tired. My breathing was labored. While Scott had weathered the heat on his runs, this afternoon was my first taste of it and I had started downing liquids hours earlier. Scott and I had both talked about how this fourth leg would be the leg that made the difference. Finish leg 4 and you are home free. Fail to start it or let it win and it was all over. The first 33 miles had been a preliminary qualifier to run this leg. There were far fewer people parked here this afternoon than line-up at Hopkinton. Elite runners? We can all set a goal, the accomplishment of which qualifies us to think of ourselves as an elite runner: a person that likes to run and runs, not just those that finish first at a certain speed.
Surprisingly, the farther I ran the better I felt. My heart rate was definitely a few beats per second higher because of the other runs and a few beats higher because of the heat, all of which translated into a slower pace. Still the run felt okay and I moved slowly forward. Today’s run differed from the others in that I was crossing streets, there were curbs and pedestrians and cars. At the moment that I least wanted to pay attention, it was mandatory.
The other issue with curbs was that my ankles and lower legs had grown stiff and lost some of their flexibility and I didn’t want to force my Achilles or knees to absorb the gravitational blow, so I had to find the smoothest route at each corner. And watch for cars. And run. So yes, I could tell that I was tired. One further indication was that some of the turns on the trail required wide turns. That can be true on the bike if you are riding fast or a running race where you have speed happening, but at my slowed slog of a pace, I should have been able to turn on a dime. Still I pushed on and in many aspects this afternoon run felt better than the morning run: tired muscles now versus sore muscles in the morning.
In a marathon there is a time when you stop counting miles up and start counting them down. In each of these legs it had been the same. I viewed 7 or 8 miles as a magic distance. Once I reached that distance I knew that I just had a manageable distance remaining and that gave me a mental edge. So at 4 miles, I only needed to run 4 more miles to just have 3 left. Crazy yes, but motivating as well.
Well, I was motivated to finish this run. I still was having more fun than many others on this sunny day, but a simple action told me that I needed to get it done. I found myself checking my progress on my watch more and more often, with the results showing remarkably little change, either in terms of distance covered, distance remaining or time elapsed. And again I check it and 47 seconds have passed with a change in distance measured in the hundredths of a mile. And still I seek that 8-mile mark to start the final sprint to the end of the current leg.
Both the physical and the mental side of runs have a way of cycling up and down and great runs usually occur when both are up. I had felt that way in all four runs. Good runs tend to have either side cycle up to at least partially offset the decline of the other. I managed to slide along this scale of feeling good and mile 8 disappeared and I found myself on a shady downhill area with the breeze blowing the leaves on the trees around me and the green grass bursting out in a small meadow. At moments like these, it feels good to run and be a part of it all. I suddenly had some bounce back, a perceived easier and faster pace, and the mental switch from running outbound to running in. Time and distances evaporate when you feel this way. Sweat is pouring down my brow and I feel my arms pumping to aid my legs and wait, yes, there in the distance is a building where I can celebrate.
Standing in the parking lot texting Scott to tell him about the run, I am cognizant that this run could have gone either way and that I have luck and a huge base of miles to thank for the happy ending. I am also nervous about how he might be feeling and how his run might have gone. Nothing to do but tell the truth. Well, at least part of the truth, because the real truth is that it would have been so much easier having him to lean on or pace me or distract me. But I also couldn’t quit because across the miles I knew that he too was depending on me to help pull him through and push him towards tomorrow’s finish. We will hurt tonight, but we have done these 4 runs and the glory will be ours shortly.
“Nebraska, I love running here.”
Before, during and after the fourth run I believed that it was both the hardest physically and the one that would require gutting it out. I had believed that, but as I took the first step into a strong wind on the final 11-mile run, I knew the fallacy of the statement. In a marathon, the common statement is that you run the first 20 to get there and then you race it home – telling yourself that it is just 10K left and that you do that every day in training. Just do that last normal run and you are there. But the reality is often that those last few miles are a struggle for dignity, where your credibility as a runner is suddenly on the line and where one can, in a single step, be reduced to surviving the next moment. Everyone looks inside at that moment for the energy, strength or willpower to make it just a bit further.
So I expected the last few miles to be hard, but I also thought that the magnet of the finish line would propel me forward. I assumed that my muscles would be sore and tight and changed my stride from short to a shuffle. I anticipated that my energy store would have already been called upon and that I would have mild dehydration from the sheer distance of the 5 runs. All of this seemed within reason until I took that first step and the wind pushed back. I had been lucky to avoid hilly runs and warm weather, so I deserved a bit of karmic fairness. So I pushed back.
My mind was strong. I pushed into the wind and moved forward. I knew that every step forward was one less step required. I felt the tightness in my calves. I felt a slight soreness in my left hip that I took note of but discounted as unimportant for the time being. My only real issue was that I felt tired in my quads – as I should have after 44 miles. But it was that mile 18 feeling of a marathon, not the mile 25 feeling. That is, they were tired, but they were still on my team. They still responded to my command.
My watch alerted me to the fact that I was finishing mile one and I checked the time to see my pace. It was about 20 seconds slower than other days for an early mile and normally I would have tried to pick it up just a little bit. But instinctively I instead slowed down a little: realizing that the goal today was finishing and feeling good. I patted myself on the back for my maturity as a runner and pushed on.
A bit up the trail I pass a large time and temperature sign seemingly misplaced on the bike trail. 59 degrees. Not bad. The wind makes it feel cooler but I realize that I am already covered with sweat and sip down some Gatorade.
The trail is built in a flood plain beside the Big Sioux River and is wide with few people, little development and no cars. I am new to town but I have now run this section 6 or 7 times and I feel very comfortable here. I get dropped off on the north side of town and run point-to-point to the Southeastern side. It is tranquil and geographically similar, adding to my ability to occasionally miss certain obvious items or landmarks. And it was one of these seemingly obvious scenes that startled me. I looked left and yes, about 30 meters from the trail, stood 5 buffaloes (American Bison for those who know the difference). I thought back about Scott’s story of almost stepping on a copperhead snake at mile 37 and how I had accused him of hallucinating. But no, there they clearly stood grazing on the green grass beside a small watering hole just as they do in the movies. I wasn’t totally surprised by this since I had seen them in two other spots around town. My question was how I had missed them on my previous runs. But that was just the beginning. A hundred feet ahead I am still thinking about the buffalo, but I shift my view and thoughts ahead and there is a CHEETAH pacing beside a chain link fence. I do a double-take and yes it IS a cheetah. Too big to be a puma or mountain lion, this is the real deal and she is actively prowling and testing the perimeter of what I assume must be her cage. My heart rate had long been elevated due to the running and the general level of exhaustion, but somehow nature took over and found a few more beats to spare and I suppose a bit of adrenaline because suddenly my mind forgets about my legs and ranks survival as its primary task. I survey the pen and it is a 6-7 foot chain link fence with 3 layers of barbed wire that angle in and add about 18 inches to the height, some length to any leap, and perhaps some mental barrier for the cheetah. Still it paces quickly around its enclosure and I can see the power in its body – oh that I could borrow some of that for a while. I moved over 2 feet to the far right side of the trail to increase the distance (in my mind). I breathed quietly and realized that running upwind meant that the cheetah had not gotten a scent from me until after I had passed by. And that was my last thought of the cheetah until sometime after the run. I really missed sharing this with Scott, as a good running partner could have enhanced the absurdness of the sighting and served as a witness if called on to testify.
Miles 3 and 4 were fairly uneventful. I crossed under a few roads and imagined that they were wind tunnels, helping me obtain a perfectly aerodynamic running form. More sessions might be required to really master it. I now had a slow but smooth pace and it felt almost like a normal run. Much of running on trails or races is about mileposts and I began to focus on a certain spot that would mark 4.5 miles to home. Granted, that would still leave me short. I wasn’t certain of the exact distance from where I had started, but now I realized that it would be 9 miles rather than 11 and that I would need to add on at the end.
Just past 4 miles, I come out of my thoughts to discover that the wind or the trail had shifted and that it was now more of a crosswind than a headwind. At mile 4.5, there was no wind. That realization seemed to encourage me to be faster and I was. The next mile was 30 seconds faster and much less mentally fatiguing. But then I returned to my 55-mile pace. I met an oncoming runner and had a strange thought: I had not been passed by a single runner going the same direction in almost 50 miles, but at my current pace, I was vulnerable to every level of runner. I wondered how I would react: well, there was no chance that I would pick up the pace and maintain contact. I certainly couldn’t carry my side of a conversation. Even the well honored tradition of stopping to tie my shoe wouldn’t work since I like couldn’t bend over far enough.
All this helped me maintain a steady pace, an even cadence and repetitive muscle movement. As long as I could keep my muscle memory active, the world would be fine. Run. I do it every day. Run. Enjoy the moment. And I do, even as an unexpected new detour sign appears around the corner. But I am a runner and a detour sign doesn’t keep me from running, it just alters my course for the moment. I even find the positive in that I am adding necessary mileage. The new hills tax me but allow me to recruit some different muscles. And the eventual return to the trail reminds me that I can now feel the end coming. My feet have run this ground. My heart and lungs have dealt with this remaining portion before and my run becomes even more mechanical – providing a welcome respite from the mental side.
Next up is the biggest hill of the 55 miles. It is how I had recently been ending my training runs, and I had intentionally planned to conquer it at the end and grab a big adrenaline boost for the finish. I turned and immediately felt a strong wind blowing from top to bottom. I lean forward and my quads push me slowly up the hill. My pace now measures in the double digits, but stopping is not an option, and I know that summiting will be the final challenge. I push harder and just sneak into the single-digit pace world. I am burning all my energy, but the point has arrived to put it all out there. There is no doubt that I am going to finish and there is no next run, so I don’t need to leave anything in the tank. The wind feels good whipping through my hair and cooling me from the emerging sun. This is why we run: for the physical and mental enjoyment that it brings. I don’t think about running. I run. I now think about the fun parts of running, leaving the mechanics to bring me in.
I ignored my watch for the last mile, determined to think about the experience, not the pace. Eventually it chimed and I came to a stop; not really sure what to do. I wanted to share the moment but my running buddy was a thousand miles away. A phone call later I was reliving his run and my run and we both had separate and joint memories of a gauntlet laid down and answered. He had run 55 miles to support my run and help me be a champion for my birthday, but we both knew that it was a present to himself as well. He is a champion and worthy of sharing, had they been there waiting for us, the tape to mark the finish, the woo-hoo girls cheering, and a laurel wreath like at Boston.
“South Dakota, I love running here.”
Run long and prosper.
Total Miles – 2 X 55
Total Calories – 15,000
Total Time Running – 18 hours
Time from start to finish – 50:45 hours
Zoos located near my trail in SD – 1
Considerations for a Birthday Run
· Try not to be old
· Live in a country with kilometers
· Be born in a month with good running weather
· Be careful about sharing a thought no matter how unlikely it seems
· If you don’t start, you can’t finish