“The women’s team is fucked.” (Text message (source withheld) 12 hours in)
The 2019 USA women’s 24 hour team was dubbed by Joe Fejes as one of the most dominant sports teams ever, a “dream team” of fixed time runners. Indeed, my qualifying mark of 151.38 miles was the 17th best female mark in the world *ever* and I was the “bubble” girl in spot #6 (of 6) to make this team! On paper, even our nearest rival, the ever strong Polish team with prior world record holder Patricja Bereznowska, didn’t stand a chance. But paper and reality are two different things and half way through the race it looked as if those paper odds might crumble into dust.
|2019 24 Hour World Championship "Dream Team": Camille Herron, me, Katy Nagy, Gina Slaby, Megan Alvarado, and Courtney Dauwalter at the Albi Cathedral
24 hour racing is a weird sport. For an entire day you endlessly run around in circles, piling up mileage while going nowhere. Going faster doesn’t make it end sooner; it requires you to run more. You can train for months, be in the best shape of your life and still a million possible little things can go wrong. Some things you can work through or you can come back from, but some things only get worse as you keep running. When that happens, you’re fucked.
This year’s race took place in Albi, France, a small riverside city in the South of France and the birth place of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a brilliant artist who suffered from pycnodysostosis, a genetic disorder that caused his bones to fracture and left his legs short and mis-shaped. Here in Albi, 400 brilliant 24 hour athletes representing 45 countries would be running around a 1500 m wrench shaped loop which consisted of a lap on a (very hard) track and asphalt paths around a soccer field and the stadium. The surface was hard and a bit uneven, and several odd turns were included. My assessment ahead of time was that the course reminded me of the 100km World Championships in Doha which was on tile and had many U-turns: It would be good for the athletes that could endure it, but that it would take it’s toll and like Toulouse-Lautrec, many would be at risk for fractured races. This seemed to be exactly how things played out as injuries piled up and seemed to be the main reason for people’s races to fall apart.
Last fall and this spring I was plagued with fatigue and the “blahs” but I seemed to be bouncing back nicely. Winning Mohican in June restored a bit of confidence and had me thinking maybe, just maybe, I could have another good race at worlds. Barely a week after that race I enlisted the help of former Badwater champion Zach Gingerich to get me there. I’ve never had a coach before because I’ve always felt like I knew what I needed to get me in shape and ready for races and that I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. I wanted to be the brains and the brawn of my racing, not just the vehicle for someone else’s plan. But the truth is, after some struggles and bad performances, I had developed some fear and anxiety about workouts and pushing myself hard. I was also suffering a bit from lack of motivation. I needed somebody to take over the reins because I started doubting myself and what I could do; I needed someone who believed in me more than I did at that time and a coach filled that role. One other major change for me was taking almost all of my hard workouts on to the treadmill. I can’t say I love the treadmill, or even like it, but this was also part of the process I needed to “get out of my own head.” No thinking required on the TM: just set you pace and run. And weekly, the improvements were quantifiable.
The first test of the new routine came at the end of August when I headed to Wisconsin for 6 Days at the Dome. With 24 Hour Worlds only two months later, this was only a “stepping stone” toward the ‘A’ goal, so I decided to run for a 100km qualifying time rather than do the full 24 hours. Sneaking in a hair under 8 hours (7:59:40) was another shot of confidence. (Turning 45 just a couple weeks later did negate that a bit!).I’ve always said sub-8 is world class for women, so hitting that mark made me feel like being “world class” at 24 hours was still possible, too. The rest of my training up to worlds went well and I felt as ready as I could be.
Camille went public before the race that she was shooting for another world record, so she was off the starting line like a shot, trailing only one guy in the first hours. The rest of the US women all had big goals, too, with pretty much everyone targeting above 150 miles. I spent a lot of time discussing pacing with Bob Hearn “The Prince of Pacing” prior to the race and had even done a few practice runs utilizing his run/walk strategy. He had finally convinced me (along with the performance of Nick Coury at Desert Solstice) that even pacing was the way to go. And then two days before the race, Bob messages me and tells me he’s got it all wrong! Even pacing is not the best way to hit your highest number and he had math models to prove it. When Bob Hearn has math models, you listen! So I formulated my own little hybrid plan for the race: Go out even for 100km with no walking at a pace slightly above 157 mile pace, then switch to a run/walk plan (14 min run/1 min walk) for the duration, with the idea that those 4 minutes of “rest” each hour would preserve my running pace and still land me with a final tally in the 154-157 mile range.
Early on I was running with Gina and Micah but we gradually drifted apart and it was just me and my podcasts for the duration. I cleared 100km right around 9:10, on dead even pacing and came in for a planned pit stop: new shoes, a bit of stretching with team Doc Greg Hon, and a quad rub down, and then set off again on the 14/1 plan. Next stop: 100 miles.
|Running with Micah. Micah crushed it with 148 miles!
The day was fairly warm, somewhere in the mid 70’s, but I was using my Ice Bandana and the race had sponge buckets and the heat never really bothered me. But for some reason, miles 75-95 just kind of dragged on for me. I didn’t have any real issues, but I didn’t really feel great and of course, this is prime time for mental mind fuck: “12 more hours?? You can’t do this for 12 more hours!! Your legs already hurt and you had no business pacing for 157! Look at all the people who are already falling apart! You could be next!” It did not help that I was feeling pretty stressed about our team status.
Megan had to stop around 8 or 9 hours due to concerns for a stress fracture. Katy also had a serious injury she was dealing with and Gina was hampered by stomach issues. I saw Courtney a couple times at the side by side track entry/exit point, but we were on the same lap running pretty close to the same pace with me consistently 400-800 meters behind so I saw very little of her the first 10 hours. And then I passed her. 400 meters is nothing in a 24 hour race, a quick bathroom stop can equate to that distance so it wasn’t particularly noteworthy. But less than an hour later I passed her again and this time I could see she was visibly hurting, her bad hip from Western States back to haunt her from all the miles of repetitive motion. While Camille seemed to be holding on pretty well, it did not escape my thinking that she was running at a very high risk pace and could also have issues. “Oh my God, this is bad. The curse of Joe Fejes!! You have to keep running now.” I thought to myself. “And you don’t feel that great. You guys are screwed!” my brain added. I wasn’t the only one worried. Text messages were flying amongst the managers and handlers about the state of the team and the general feeling wasn’t good. In fact, to some it looked like we were fucked.
I wasn’t feeling great but I didn’t have any real lows either. Just keep doing what you are doing until you can’t do it any more. Gradually, I moved from 18th place up to 3rd (unbeknownst to me, though I figured I had to be about 5th or 6th). 14 minutes run, 1 minute walk, unless you stop for any other reason, then you don’t get to walk. I had my podcasts on (Thank you, Armchair Experts!) and I was plugging along. Time wasn’t moving fast, but it was moving and so was I. As the time counted down, I was even able to suppress the negative brain banter. “Only 300 more minutes. I can do this!” (Never, ever think in hours!) In fact, everything was great until they told me what place I was in. And oh yeah, Spartathlon and Badwater course record holder Patrycja has recovered from her own stomach issues and is hunting you down and closing your 3k lead fast!
The adrenaline rush lasted about an hour. I picked up my pace, but so did Patrycja. I gave everything I had trying to hold her off but she was still closing. And the pace was taking its toll. My legs were screaming and I couldn’t keep the faster clip going. I stopped for a medical stretch right as Patrycja overtook me and the next lap I was in the bathroom emptying both my stomach and my bowels. Game over. The final two and a half hours were a struggle. I know that fight with Patrycja sapped me dearly and likely cost me a mile or two at the end. But with a medal on the line I had to go for it and I’d do it again. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. While it stings a little to be so close to an individual medal, I can’t be upset. I know I gave it my all and never gave up. Patrycja beat me straight up and was much stronger than me at the end. While on paper she beat me by less than a lap, she and the Polish team were watching my splits and she was just besting them by a couple seconds. Patrycja had no chance to catch second place and no chance for the Polish team to steal the gold from the US team so she was content to just mirror my splits to hold on to third. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had run a mile more that Patrycja would've been able to run 1.1 miles more.
As for the rest of the US ladies, they proved to be the goddamn strongest women around and I am so proud of all of them. This group rallied as a true TEAM! My highest respects to Courtney; she was in obvious pain and jeopardizing the next several months of running, but she kept plugging on like a serious trooper. She’d stop by the doctor, get some hip treatment, go flying by me, then gradually wear down until she needed another treatment. She told me she felt like she had a leaky tire that she could pump up and run on for a while but that it would eventually go flat and need to be pumped up again. With all that, the woman covered 143+ miles!! Tough As Nails! Camille is just out of this world when it comes to flat surface ultras. She not only held it together but set a new world record of 167 miles. Megan couldn’t come back in but crewed furiously the remainder of the race. And even though Katy couldn’t run either, she immediately jumped back in to the race in power walk mode when she saw Courtney hurting. Gina became my own personal pacer at the end of the race and was a godsend to me when I was hurting the most. Boom! We’re not fucked; we’re the WORLD CHAMPIONS with a new World Record Team Total to boot!
The award for such a great race is a trip to drug testing!! In theory, drug testing is a wonderful thing to have in our sport. In reality, drug testing after a race sucks. Somehow, Camille got to hang out on the track for an hour after the race was over, but I got dragged into a cold tile locker room about five minutes after finishing, with only enough time to grab my warm-up sweats off of the top my bag. If I had any doubts about leaving it all on the course, drug testing erased them once and for all as I was clearly in the worst shape there. Being the first to drug testing didn’t help because I was way too dehydrated to produce anything more than 20 cc of amber brown fluid, way short of the necessary 80. The other athletes waited patiently in chairs while I lay in the fetal position on the freezing floor wrapped in a mylar cocoon. When they passed out sick bags, I promptly used mine. And I had a very emergent need for a bathroom for other reasons as well and was tortured by the officials who told me in no way could I use a bathroom without the supervision of a female agent who was busy and wouldn’t be out for another 20 minutes!! I finally made it out with about 15 minutes to spare before awards. All of my other stuff had been kindly packed up and taken away by crew, so I was left wearing what I had on, ruining all the team podium
|Two gold medal teams! (Nice outfit, Pam)
Thank you to everyone who followed and cheered for the US squad. A big thanks especially to all of the wonderful people who were there supporting team USA on race day from all of the managers, the team doctor and everyone who helped crew and especially to my good friend Traci Falbo and Courtney’s husband Kevin Schmidt who took care of me personally all day long - I couldn’t have done it without you guys. I also should thank Injinji socks. Even though I tried to drop all my sponsors this year or completely failed to do any promotional gobbledygook, they kept me on the team and are still sending me the best socks there are for running. I raced all day in a pair of long Injinji compression socks and wore another pair in the days following the race. No skin blisters and no DVTs!!
|Traci keeps me going!
I have now been on seven US Teams and have been fairly close to an individual medal three times with 5th, 5th, and 4th places finishes. But all three of those times I have gotten to stand on the top of the podium with my team and hear the national anthem play. I have also been 10th, 12th, and 16th (2013 race cancelled so no 7th result for me) with a team silver and two team bronzes. If my lot in life is only to experience glory as part of the team, well, I am ok with that because it is still a moment of pride and honor that I will cherish forever. Go Team USA!! I don’t know that I love 24 hour racing, but I love being part of this team so I am looking forward to Romania in May 2021!