I was terrified. 3 days. I was already destroyed by last year's attempt to run for 48 hours. And now I would try to do a 72-hour ultra marathon. It didn’t make sense.
Normally I have a very strict plan for my races, i.e. races that take less than 24 hours to run. This time I had no clue. I knew that if I was able to hold my slow and easy pace and figure out how to fuel myself, it shouldn’t be impossible to run at least a 100 miles a day. But that would mean a new course record with loads of miles. And I knew how I fell apart in the 48 hour race. And I knew I had only been able to train consistently for a couple of weeks due to the flue, which never really disappeared during the winter.
So it wasn't the best conditions for a good race. I just had to face the fear and do my best. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.
The race started at 9AM and everybody took off in a rather slow pace. I was almost a little bit surprised because last year a lot of runners started very fast. Focus, patience and disciplin seemed to be the mindset, and I was very pleased with that. I always start slow, but it’s also important not to get too far behind in the beginning of the race, even if I know that my conservative pacing strategy will pay off eventually.
I acquainted myself with the other runners, some I knew from last year and some were new. Our host in the US this year was Daniel Gallo, whom I beat with 1 mile (!) in the 48-hour race last year. Now he was racing in the 72-hour event, and would sure be glad if he could have his revenge this time. Serge Arbona was also racing — tall and French, a member of the US team and a World Record holder on 24-hour running on treadmill. He’s a great runner that I really admire and he was 2nd in 48h last year. I also talked to John Fegyveresi who I didn’t really know from before — he was 2nd in 72 last year, and one of very few Barkeley Marathon finishers — I was humbled just by being on the same course as him. And there was this guy Josh, who apparently was trained to do 300, who was pointed out to me.
But somehow I wasn’t intimidated. I knew that if I in some magical way could keep my act together, I could do big numbers. Just like every other ultra, this was a race you could only run with, and against, yourself.
Although I have some experiences from long races, fueling the smartest way is always tricky. As I eat a rather high-fat-low-carb diet, I wanted to use my fat burning capacity. My plan was to start with mostly real food, coconut oil, and water. But I also knew that I race best on sugar, so my idea for the evening and night was to add sugar and caffeine. I had deliberately diminished my coffee intake prior to the race to get the extra kick.
But I can’t explain what happened next. Everything seemed to be ok, but after about 45 miles I was totally broken. I had no energy and no desire to continue pushing. In hindsight it might be due to too little carbohydrate intake during the first hours, but at the time I was just a wreck who didn’t know what hit me. And being forced to take a long break already after 45 miles when I was prepared to run for 72 hours, was not a positive feeling. The break didn’t even help. After 55 miles the situation was the same. I was done. I converted to sugar. And drugs (caffeine, that is).
After a cup of coffee and a Blok from ClifBar, I started to recognize myself again and was actually looking forward to the night. All my cloudy objectives about certain milage was gone and I just needed to run. I found a pattern that I was very comfortable in. Each lap I had one ClifBar Blok. After the turn, I would walk from the crack in the asphalt to the yellow fence. I practiced box breathing between the trash can and the small Santa, four counts in, four counts out and four counts hold. Walked some steps after the aid station, not before. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. My head felt crystal clear from the caffeine and sugar. My body felt strong again. I can do this. I am a runner.
When the night started I was in 9th place. In the morning I had advanced to 2nd. Only Josh ahead. Perfect.
Day 2 started and I was awesome. Bring it on! I will do 6-days events! I have cracked the code! Give me one more ClifBar Blok an I’ll run forever!
Of course this was way too good to be true. But I wasn’t prepared for what would take me down. Not fuelling or dehydration. Not blisters, injuries or pain. But the sun... The beautiful, evershining New Jersey sun.
I don’t do well in heat, I know that. And we haven’t had that many hot days in Sweden yet. The night was cold. But on the second day the sun was up again and the day was even hotter than the one before. I used lots of sunscreen but didn’t notice the fact that I washed it off after toilet breaks. And my neck was burning too. Finally, I had to take a longer break.
I didn’t really mind. I could allow myself a break, even if it meant that people would pass me. There was a lot of time left. Almost 2 days in fact.
I tried to relax, sleep a bit. Cool down, take a cold shower. The shower was a brilliant idea that I used several times throughout the race. When crewing for other runners in 24-hour races, I’ve used it to cool them down, but this time it was my turn to jump into an ice cold shower in the middle of a race. Not a very pleasant experience, but equally refreshing and reviving.
But the sun stayed up, while I just couldn’t. I found myself more and more affected by the heat and I couldn’t handle it. My pace went down and eventually I had to stop for a rest again. One break was ok, but two breaks that close in time… No.
In the afternoon/evening I really tried to come back to the course again. But something in my body screamed no, loud and clear. It was obvious I wasn't doing well. I was ill and had a fever.
And it was literally "good night" for me. I have learned the hard way not to run when I am ill somehow, so I went to bed. I was gone from the course for 9 hours. Looking at my lap times, this looks almost funny. 9 hours is a long time to make a 1-mile loop, even in a 72-hour race.
In the morning Ellen started her marathon at 9 and I really wanted to make her company. I got up and did some slow laps just to wake myself up. Surprisingly, it actually felt quite possible to run. I thought I’d be completely stiff and swollen, but none of that, no problem at all. Well, ”no problem” is a relative term. Things hurt, but it was not that difficult to run. I dreamt about joining Ellen for all of her 26 laps, and struggled hard to keep the dream alive, but it was difficult. I really needed her company to add another 26 laps to my result, which would be a disappointment either way.
But Ellen was way too fast for me. I should have known, since I was so affected by my first 24 hours of running and the fever. But dreams and reality don’t always speak the same language. I tried to join her every other lap, but that was hard too. I tried to crew for her. Telling her what to eat and filling up her cups of coke. That was at least easier. Once she had finished her marathon, the sun was still too hot for me again. And my fever came back. Ok. Nothing to do about it. Just rest in the shade. See if it would go away, and hope for a colder night.
People started telling me that if I could run at night, I had a chance to catch up with the other runners. They actually meant I could catch up with the ones that hadn’t taken a 9-hour break, plus a 5-hour break only a few hours later. People told me I could run fast if only the temperature would cool down.
Encouragement is always nice, but it seemed as if everyone had mixed up dreams with reality. The reality was that the race was getting closer to the end, and I had already run a lot and been ill for the rest of the time. To think that I could start running again, was a dream. To think that I could run fast was merely stupid.
But the night came. Finally.
I got up.
It started to rain.
And I started to run.
This was magic. It didn’t just rain a little, it was a real thunderstorm. But I kept on running and the water cooled me down. I felt stronger and stronger, and drank more coffee and ate more ClifBar Bloks. I was back. I can’t explain how it happened, but I was back. The first night I had started to advance from place 9, but going into the last night I was in place 14. Never mind. This race, you race against yourself. Always.
I found my pattern again. I walked from the crack to the fence. Practiced box breathing. The aid station. Repeat. And repeat again.
This was my night. I was very present in the moment and the fact that I was able to run in a good pace during the third night in a 3-day race was absolutely wonderful. Or maybe it was the caffeine and sugar intake, but I was on top of the world. My body was tired but my mind was very awake.
And I experienced something I’ve never felt before; I couldn’t get any more tired. Of course my body wanted to stop, running was hard, but stopping wasn't even an option in my brain anymore. I was running. I have always thought you get more and more tired until you stop. But that’s not true. You get more and more tired and then you just don’t get any more tired. I had my fuel and my mind in order so what could go wrong? The only thought that worried me, was the one that said I would continue running until something broke.
This was maybe the most spiritual feeling I have ever had while running, and there was still more to experience this ultra night. But even if I was all mindful I couldn’t stop my mind from thinking, and doing calculations. Like ”if I run 50 more miles and everyone else stops I might be on the podium”. But to grasp the subject of the possibility to run 50 miles during the last night was overwhelming, and felt impossible. Besides, everyone else wasn’t stopping. Josh was untouchable. Serge had had an injury but ran like a God anyway. John was a machine, and Daniel had slept and managed to run again, despite the fact that his legs were so swollen you couldn’t see his ankles. So I ran for myself.
And I thought that if I was able to continue, I would at least reach 200. So I continued.
And reached 200. And all of a sudden, the world was empty. The race seemed meaningless and I couldn’t achieve anything more. There were lots of hours left, but for what? I couldn’t reach the podium. I couldn’t reach any more significant numbers. So why carry on? I had this dialogue in my head for seconds and eons. My tired mind couldn't come up with a good answer, but ultra is all about going beyond — going beyond what you thought was possible or beyond imaginary (and sometimes real) borders. Around this time, I remembered that my real strength in running is that I'm good at not stopping. This I kept repeating to myself over and over again.
I decided not to stop and to do what I do best — I carried on. Crying. Everything was empty and I didn’t know what I was doing. But I ran. I must have run 1 or 2 laps with tears in my eyes before I managed to do anything about the situation. I figured that since I still was running, I might as well do it good. I held my head up high and started to lengthen my stride. Suddenly I was flying.
Daniel had to catch up some laps on John, and when he noticed I was running hard again, he joined me. And we were like super-ultra-heroes around the course, never mind that we already had been running for 70-ish hours. Daniel caught up with John and was now on the podium, I advanced another position and was now fifth. Suddenly I was so strong that I managed to do my fastest lap during the whole event — indicated on the screen with a green light. I was on a runner’s high and rung the bell with emphasis, screaming out: Did you see? Did you see that? A green light!!! Shall I do another one? The people at the aid station kindly responded YES! And I was out of there, running like the wind, making yet another lap even faster than the last one — a green light again!!! I was screaming. Yeah! Two in a row! Do you want another one?!??? And this time I got a screaming YES! from the volunteers and the audience so I made one more. Three hard laps in a row, 70 hours into a 72-hours race, three green lights in a row. I was happy. At least I had achieved something.
I ended up with 225 miles and fifth place. Josh Irvan was unbeatable with 293 miles ans a new course record, Serge (second) did an amazing race considering his problem with an injury. Daniel was happy to beat me with about 1 marathon for third place, and John finished fourth with a very even pace throughout the event.
I’ve learned a lot. And I’m not scared anymore.
A big thank you to Melody and Daniel Gallo who helped us with everything and made our stay in the US a wonderful time!