It’s been exactly one week since I started my longest race to date, the 72 hour Across the Years at Camelback Ranch just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Last year I experienced the 24 hour race at the same venue and enjoyed it so I decided to return to try my hand at the 3 day race. My recent attempt at the 48 hour UltraCentric in Grapevine, Texas, gave me the confidence I needed to try the longer event. At UltraCentric I achieved 120 miles so I was confident I would be able to manage at least 150 miles given the extra day.
We left JAX early on Friday morning, flew to Atlanta, and then on to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Our rental car was ready so we drove to our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard in Avondale, where we stayed last year. This hotel is very clean and quiet with accommodating staff and is located just off the loop-101 freeway, a few exits away from Camelback Ranch. We checked in and then drove to the ranch so I could get my bib, ankle chip, and goodie bag. This year I had rented a large tent with a cot so I would have a place to put my stuff and get some sleep. These tents were to be set up for us and available by Friday afternoon. I wanted to put dibs on a tent in a good spot and check out the course.
Everything looked pleasantly familiar. I liked the idea that I knew the rules, the course layout, the location of the aid station and portapotties (and real indoor bathrooms), and other essentials. There were a few changes from last year; for example, to help hold congestion to a minimum, a chalk line was drawn along the narrowest section of the course so runners could stay to the left and walkers to the right. Unfortunately, few paid attention to this new ‘rule’ (except for me, since I tried to stay out of the way of runners) but most of the time this didn’t really matter. Another change was the omission of a full second aid station halfway across the course. This year only water in jugs was available so participants could refill their water bottles. While I brought a couple of handheld bottles, I never used them; since the course was only 1.0488 miles long, it was easy to wait until I reached the main aid station to get something to drink and eat.
Once again I was both surprised and disappointed in my goodie bag. Last year, the otherwise nice red windbreaker jacket , size medium, was so small that I had to give it away. Remembering that, I requested an extra-large size this year. Unfortunately, this year the jacket was a thin purple fleece, so large that I could use it as a blanket. I didn’t know anyone who would wear anything that large – in purple – so I ended up cutting out the embroidered ATY insignia when I returned home and eventually plan to sew it on a plain sweater. The long-sleeve tech shirt was gray, plain except for a small emblem on the left shoulder. A purple hat and pink gloves completed our goodies. All of this was put inside a decent-sized blue duffle bag. After all the neat stuff we received at the Humble End of the World races just for the entry fee, I thought this seemed like a waste (especially since we had to pay $100 extra for the bag and its contents).
After our visit to the ranch, we had lunch at Gordon Biersch Brewery at a shopping mall nearby and then drove back to our hotel so I could pack the two drop bags I planned to take on race day morning. I had also packed a lightweight sleeping bag so I could set it on the cot for a nap. In addition, I had brought 4 pairs of shoes, 4 pairs of Injinji socks (and a few Thorlos as well), long pants, short pants, a variety of tops, both long and short-sleeved, fleece jackets and sweaters, mittens, handwarmers, hats, a scarf, and a heavy rain-resistant jacket with hood. I ended up wearing just about everything I brought, including all the shoes and Injinji socks.
Saturday morning dawned cold and frosty. I was up early, dressed, ate, and was ready to go around 6 am. Even though we were only 10 minutes drive away, I wanted to get to the race site early to arrange things in my tent. There was a brief race meeting at 8:45 am and then we lined up for the 9 am start. The whistle blew and we began circling the course. One of the good things about this race is that we change direction every 4 hours, so we get a chance to see the course from a different perspective. This also helps modify overuse injuries and gives legs and feet a respite from continually moving in the same direction.
It felt great to be moving and I was enjoying the brisk day with promises of sunshine and warmer weather. The course consists of 85% dirt with pebbles and small rocks and 15% asphalt. Race instructions noted that gaiters were recommended. This was also true last year and I worried because I had none. I had no problems with rocks and pebbles last year. This year, however, I had MAJOR difficulties. Every step I took found tiny pieces of stones in my shoes and socks. I kept moving forward regardless. I did bring gaiters with me this year but had left them in my suitcase in the hotel (so much for planning in advance). I decided to ignore the irritants as much as I could and stopped only twice that first day to empty out my shoes. In hindsight, I should have phoned my husband to bring my gaiters at his next visit (he would come see me every 6 hours or so during the day) so I could put them on and mimize the problem. I didn’t and I paid dearly.
By mile 24, I could feel a nasty blister forming on the ball of my right foot. This reminded me of the blister episode I experienced at my first 24 hour race at FANS in Minneapolis. Around mile 40, I stopped at the medical tent to have the blister lanced but the EMT thought it best to leave it intact and cover it with Second Skin and moleskin. That seemed to do the trick, for a while at least, and I pressed on. Night came and the weather became very cold. My original plan was to walk for the first 24 hours, with a brief nap around 1 am. By midnight the cold was very intense and my body started to slow from extreme fatigue. At 12:30 I decided to take a nap in my tent. However, the constant noise (music from the start/finish line, beeping from chips, voices from runners and crew) kept me from slumbering. Even more problematic was the cold. Although the tent was warmer than outside, and even though I had covered myself with the sleeping bag, blanket, and every piece of clothing I had, my teeth were chattering and I was shivering. It made more sense to keep moving and generate some heat to stay warm.
By dawn, I noticed a lot of floaters in my eyes, something that occurs when I am very tired. They were more of a distraction than a major concern but they did interfere a bit with my normal vision. More disconcerting was the change in my gait caused by the resurgence of the blisters. I tried to minimize their effect by putting weight more heavily on my left foot and dragging my right. This resulted in severe pain in a tendon on the front of my left ankle. This was definitely not a good sign. By 1 pm on Saturday, I had only reached 88 miles and walking was tortuous. I dragged myself into the medical tent (again) and asked the EMT for some advice. My immediate idea was to leave the course at that point, return to the hotel, elevate my legs, and rest, and then continue on the next morning. The EMT agreed, also suggesting I use compression and icing as well. Fortunately, my husband had come by to see how I was doing and he was quick to concur with the new plan. We stopped at a nearby CVS to get an Ace bandage and I spent the rest of the second day and night in bed with my feet elevated, periodically icing my sore wrapped tendon, and getting some much-needed sleep in a warm hotel room.
It’s amazing what a good night’s rest can do. By 4 the next morning, I was up and gingerly testing out exactly how much weight I could put on my right foot. It didn’t feel perfect but it did feel MUCH better than it did the day before. I woke up my husband and asked him to drive me back to the ranch so I could continue the race. I found my gaiters and put them on over a new pair of shoes. It was bitterly cold but I was warmly dressed and ready to shed clothes if needed. Meanwhile, I felt eager to restart the race and try to make up for lost time. My goal for Monday was, first, to get to 100 miles, then to aim for 120 miles (to equal what I achieved at UltraCentric), and then if possible to do a few more miles before heading back to the hotel for some sleep and warmth. I achieved all these goals by 5 pm that evening. During the last few hours on the course that afternoon, I wondered how best my husband and I might celebrate New Year’s Eve. I decided on a little ‘party’ in our hotel room. We found a Safeway Supermarket, stocked up on all the essentials (wine, cheese, chips, bagels, and dessert), and headed back to the hotel where we toasted the New Year at 7 pm and then promptly fell asleep.
The next morning I returned to the course at 5:30 am and managed to get in another 15 miles before the whistle blew at 9 am signaling the end of the race. This was a total of 137 miles, a greater distance than I had ever before achieved. Originally, I had hoped to get to 150 miles (or maybe even more) but I knew that sometimes things happen beyond our control. Even with the best plans, things can go awry. With every race, I learn a lot and try to incorporate what I learn in my next race, but there are good days and bad days and I have to adapt. It’s all part of the fun of taking part in these races.
All participants received a heavy glass stein with Across the Years emblazoned on it. As a result of achieving at least 100 miles, I also received a neat brass 100 mile buckle (my first buckle). A few other passing thoughts about this race in particular:
• There was plenty of food and drink available but not much that really appealed to me. It could be that I was spoiled after the Cordon Bleu offerings at UltraCentric but I just couldn’t get too excited about M & M pancakes, hard gingersnaps and Oreos, sushi, and bean burritos. I ended up snacking on trail mix for most of my time on the course
• Some really impressive runners blazed by me setting and breaking records – Joe Fejes and Vikena Yutz, male and female winners, come to mind. Both are Darksiders and managed to provide encouraging words to me and other participants
• Indoor bathrooms were a blessing. I didn’t use the portapotties at all. It was wonderful.
• The course is well-lit at night but I still had a flashlight with me for a few spots that remained relatively dark
• The setting is a beautiful one and I never felt unsafe or concerned about being on the course by myself at night.
This race series includes 24 and 48 hour options as well as the 72 hour, and next year there is supposed to be a 6 day (yes, that’s correct – SIX DAY) race as well. Timed races tend to be very walker-friendly and this race is definitely a good choice for walkers. Just be sure to bring warm clothes and gaiters!