I decided I was ready for another 24 hour challenge, so early Friday morning, December 30, my husband and I drove to the JAX airport for our flights to Phoenix, AZ, so I could participate in the venerable Across the Years (ATY) race. The Across the Years series, aptly named because the races begin at the tail end of December and end on January 1 of the new year, includes several timed races – a 72 hour (which began on December 29), a 48 hour (which started a day later), and the 24 hour, which technically begins on December 31 but could also be run for a 24 hour period on either the 29th or 30th.
After settling into our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard in Glendale (one of the host hotels and a bit cheaper than the closer Comfort Inn), we drove to the race venue at Camelback Ranch so I could take a look at the course and ask some questions. We spoke to Karen and Ed (the jester of MM fame). It was about 2 pm Friday afternoon, hot and sunny, and with absolutely no shade on the course, some of the 48 and 72 hour runners were suffering. Many had dropped completely or were taking a break from the heat, either in their tents or in RVs set up or parked along the course. Others were being treated for blisters in the medical tent. It did not seem very warm to me but then I had not been out racing for hours and hours either. I asked some questions about getting my bib and ankle chip the next morning (registration was from 7-9 a. m. each day) and about the location of bathrooms and aid tents, etc. One of my concerns had been the track itself – it was 90% dirt with small gravel and rocks and only a 10% road/asphalt surface. The dirt path was good news, easier on my legs and feet, but the gravel and rocks caused the race director to suggest the wearing of gaitors. Since I didn’t own a pair I was concerned about how well I would do without them. As I studied the runners passing by, I saw that many were wearing road running shoes sans gaitors, so I felt I would be okay as is. I did plan to wear my new trail shoes (the latest generation of Brooks Cascadia) since they rise higher than my road shoes and deal well with rocky surfaces. This turned out to be a good decision – the shoes were sturdy enough to withstand walking on small bits of rock and gravel, yet comfortable and light enough to get me through the entire 24 hour period without having to change shoes or socks.
Now we were ready for a hearty lunch and headed to Gordon Biersch Brewery for some sliders and beer and then back to the hotel to make my pre-race preparations. It was early to bed and, despite my usual race jitters, I slept well. We were both up early and left about 6:30 am. It was cold! We sat in the car until 7 am and I could get my bib and goodie bag. At dawn, as the sun rose and it began to warm up just a bit, we stood by the course to watch the runners already on the track make their way around and around. I found an empty chair, set it up across from the main aid station, and deposited my drop bag on it. Then I impatiently waited for our 9 am start. Finally, it was our turn and the new 24 hour people took off. A couple of loops and I assessed the times of my laps – they were not very good, 14 minutes and change; I’m not sure exactly why I was so slow, but in a way it was reassuring. There is no point in starting out fast in a 24 hour race.
I can’t complain about the weather too much since it was nice and warm during the daylight hours and, while the night brought colder temperatures, there was no wind and it was more tolerable than the 20 temps of last year’s race.
A funny thing did happen to me because of the weather, though. I had brought some raspberry colored sweats with me just in case it turned really cold. Around 9 pm, I thought it might be prudent to put the sweatpants on over my crops and the sweatshirt over my 2 shirt layers, so I sat in my chair, took off my shoes (this gave me a chance to shake out any sand and dirt that had crept in), and pulled on the pants. Then I pulled the sweatshirt over my head. My hands were too cold to retie my shoes so I had to enter the medical tent with its heaters to warm my hands so I could tie the laces. Then I took off on my next lap. However, now I was too warm and after a couple more rounds of the course, I realized that the sweats were too heavy for the 9 o’clock temps. Realizing that I probably should have waited until the frostier cold to come in the wee hours of the morning before adding the additional layers, I made another stop to take off the pants and sweatshirt. I took care to remove the ankle chip strap from around my sweat pants and put it on my ankle below my crops. I packed the extra clothes in my bag and continued on my way.
About halfway to the second aid station, I looked down to check my chip (obsessive compulsive person that I am) and – WHOA! I suddenly realized there was NO chip! What happened to my chip?? I looked over the ground around me as best I could in the dark but could not see it anywhere. We had been warned at the race start that we absolutely had to return the ankle chip or else pay a fee of $100. Oh, boy, now I was in for it. I turned around and began to retrace my steps back, yes back, to my chair to figure out where in the world my chip could be. I had neglected to bring a flashlight so I asked a lady sitting on the next chair using a laptop if she had a light. She was kind enough to use the light from her computer to help me check my bag and the grass around my chair. Still NO CHIP! Now I am thinking that I am out $100 and will have to call it quits for the race since I have no way to keep track of my time. I am in a state of panic. I try one more check through all the things in my bag. I pick up my sweatpants one more time and check each leg. Doggone it, there is my ankle chip in the bottom half of the inside of one leg, its velcro stuck to the fabric. I pulled it out and attached it firmly to my ankle and took off once more.
It soon became apparent that my hopes for reaching 100 miles in this race were unlikely to be fulfilled. I had lost at least 30 minutes with the chip fiasco, not to mention the mental anguish that accompanied it. In a way it made things a whole lot easier because at that point I decided just to relax and get through the night and the remaining hours as best I could without any real mileage goal except to try and better my previous total of 81 miles. The hardest section of any 24 hour race for me is always the time between midnight and 4 am. That may be true for most ultrarunners; after all, that’s when most of us are usually asleep. At around 4 am, I began to sense that dawn was close and I felt revitalized. The result was a new PR for me, 86 miles, only 14 shy of my 100 mile goal, so I was satisfied.
Good stuff about this race:
✓ the loop was 1.05 miles – perfect to feel that I was making progress (every loop was at least a mile – much better than the .9 loop at Northcoast 24 and light years better than than last week’s 1/4 mile track)
✓ we changed direction every 4 hours – this helped to even out any balance or overuse issues and also gave a different perspective on the scenery
✓ Camelback Ranch was a beautiful location, with grass, a lake with a small waterfall, and a wide dirt path with no roots or impediments
✓ the Ranch was also very secure – I felt completely safe, even at night when I was often alone
✓ chip timing was accurate and avoided the need for lap counters
✓ because the chip was on an ankle strap, I could have changed shoes as needed without a problem
✓ the automated timing system was extremely fast – as soon as I crossed the timing mat, my name instantly appeared on the electronic board, along with the number of laps, miles, kilometers, and time of my last lap; it was simply amazing!
✓ there was plenty of food and liquid at both aid stations; some of the treats were unusual (apple cobbler was one of my favorites) but there was also pizza, pb and j quarters, and cookies, pretzels, and such
✓ chairs were available to set up drop bags or to sit and take a break, so people like myself who did not have a tent (these could be rented but at a cost) could keep their stuff off the ground and readily available (it’s hard to bend down when you’ve been up and racing for a long time)
✓ the dirt course was easy on the legs and feet; I did not have a problem with shin splints or blisters
✓ just before midnight, a table was set out with champagne and sparkling cider for the runners and their families; there were hats and noisemaker as well. Fireworks were set off in areas around us and I could glimpse them going off every now and then
✓ we wore our bibs with our race numbers and name on a strap around our waist. Most runners turned these to their backside so people coming up behind them could identify them by name. The bibs were color coded, so all 24 hour racers wore blue bibs
But there were some things I didn’t like so much:
◆ the jacket I ordered in a ladies medium was too snug for me to wear while the long sleeved tech shirt had a very slippery feel to it and the only design element was a small logo on a corner of the front, I had paid an extra fee of $80 for the extra goodies so I was disappointed that I was not able to wear either garment. I didn’t get to look or try on either one until after the race was over and we were packing to leave Phoenix, so it was too late to try to exchange the items. On a more positive note, the spacious red duffle bag is extremely useful and the goodies included a warm pair of gloves and a hat. I’ve used all 3 items already but the jacket will go to my slender daughter-in-law and the shirt to Goodwill
◆ after 3 days, even the sweetest smelling porta-potties become rank. They were cleaned every so often but it was still hard to deal with. And the indoor bathrooms were wonderful until they overflowed and became unusable around midnight on New Year’s eve. For that reason, starting the 24 hour run on the 1st day would probably be a good idea. Okay, this was a minor element that most ultraracers deal with all the time, so it was not a biggie, just something to consider
◆ because many of the runners had been on the course for 2 + days when I arrived, they were pretty tired and not as ‘up’ as most ultrarunners are during a course. Since I tend to withdraw into myself in a race, especially in the beginning when I am trying to find a good pace for myself, this meant that for most of the 24 hours I didn’t exchange many pleasantries with my fellow racers and I missed that interaction, especially in the wee hours when the field thinned considerably as people left the course to nap or eat or change clothes
At race end, I collected my finisher’s award, a huge glass stein, and headed back to the hotel for a shower and nap before our late checkout. We spent the rest of the day and the evening with our Arizona friends Karen and David and then returned home on Tuesday – a long trip but an excellent way to begin the new year.