[originally posted at gametheoryninja.com]
As some of you know, I ran 100 miles this weekend. Here’s the race report. Also, I know it’s not related to game theory at all.
The race I ran was Rocky Raccoon, a five-lap race in Huntsville, Texas. You can see the results here. I finished in 24:58:28. Only 43% of the 415 runners finished. (Does anyone have updated stats on this?)
Lap 1: It was a dark and stormy night …
About an hour before the race started, Dad and I were sitting in the rental car. Rain was coming down in sheets. Per the normal clichés about storms, lightening zig-zagged through the sky and thunder echoed through the forest. We don’t get storms like this in Northern California, and I hadn’t prepared for it.
I hacked some holes into a black plastic trash bag, and used duct tape to get the extra plastic away from my legs. In my mind, the end result looked like a superhero combination of a Catwoman costume and a steampunk bustle. In reality, it probably looked like a house getting tented for termites.
The race started at 6am. Much of the first lap was in the dark. It took less than a mile for me to trip over a tree root, a hazard the course is notorious for. I was already bleeding, and we hadn’t even been running for ten minutes. Somehow, this early wipe-out didn’t dampen my spirits any more than the storm did.
Every two or three miles featured an enormous, impossible-to-avoid mud puddle. I was regularly up to my ankles in mud and water. My shoes were at least damp, if not drenched, for the entire race. This would prove to cause problems later.
I don’t remember much of the first lap. There was so much running left to do, and I didn’t want to think too much about what was to come. I do remember, around mile 8, having a bit of a panic attack. I still had 92 miles to run. 92 miles seems a lot longer than 100 miles.
Lap 2: The Man with the Sea Dragon Compression Socks
Every so often, in a race, runners will fall into step and pace off of each other. The two runners acknowledge each other and run in silent camaraderie. No words required.
For lap 2, and some of lap 3, I found such companionship with a man whose name I still don’t know. All I know about him was that he had running spandex and compression socks that looked like sea dragon scales, so that’s how I mentally referred to him.
Somewhere during lap 2, I also met a man named Bruce. He was wearing a blue shirt with cat paw-prints on it, so, being a cat person, I had to ask about it. I learned that Bruce was from Toronto, and told him I’d be visiting in July for World Futures 2012. Bruce had heard of WFS; he’s a CIO for a large school district near Toronto with 7k faculty and 54k students, so he’d been thinking about attending.
Best part: Bruce is in the middle of deploying Google Apps for Edu for his school district. [For those who don’t know, Google Apps is the part of Google I work for]. Bruce and I talked about everything from Gmail to Chromebooks to centrally-managed Android tablets. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I drilled him for about an hour on his opinions on our products. He seemed happy to oblige my curiosity.
Lap 3: Lothlorien in Light and Shadow
About midway through this lap, I saw the sun for the first and last time during the race. It was a wan orb, low on the horizon, mostly obscured by emaciated tree trunks. Spindly shadows reached across the dirt path.
Seeing the sun made me unreasonably happy.
Around mile 52, I realized that it was going to get dark before I got to the turnaround and could pick up a headlamp. I ran the last 8 miles of this lap very quickly to avoid getting caught in the dark.
Lap 4: Trust
This was the lap I had been looking forward to for the last 60 miles. My thought had been that if I could just get to this lap, I’d make it the rest of the way. This is the lap when my pacer, Georgia, joined me.
The first two-thirds of this lap were great. It was fantastic to have someone to talk to, and Georgia was an excellent pacer. Real friendship is carrying extra caffeine Gus and a jacket for your runner.
One of the fun parts of this lap was being able to share my newly-acquired, yet very intimate, knowledge of the course. Having been around the course three times times already, I could tell her where all the turnoffs were, where the tricky roots were, and the easiest way around mud puddles. The aid stations were at 3.1 miles, 6.2 miles, 12.2 miles, and 15.6 miles. The hardest bit was the loop between 6.2 and 12.2, because that’s a full six miles without aid. The far timing mat was a little less than 10 miles into the loop.
There’s one stretch of the course – less than a 10th of a mile – that’s right along the lake. It’s the only part of the course with an unobstructed view of the sky. On lap four, we had front-row seats to the stars.
That short stretch is also difficult, because just a few hundred yards away, across the lake, is the finish line. You can hear the shouts and cheers of spectators urging their runners across the timing mat. It throws into sharp relief the fact that you’re just about halfway through the lap.
If I learned anything this time around it’s that, in long distance races, mood swings happen unpredictably and with no discernible cause. Miles 72 to 78 were very tough, and I’m not sure why. I had to sit down for a minute on a mound of dirt, where I spent two minutes contemplating the meaning of life with Georgia before finishing the lap.
At the impromptu rest point, I was about three-quarters done with the race. Sounds impressive, but not when that means I still had another full marathon until the finish.
Lap 5: Silence
Georgia and I finished lap 4 around midnight. I had been running for about 18 hours at that point. A sub-24 hour finish was still possible, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t very likely. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but my intuition tells me that negative splits don’t often happen on 100-mile races.
After inhaling a chocolate donut and my first-ever mocha [which was delicious – thanks Dad!], I grabbed my iPod and took off for the last lap.
It was dark. Profoundly dark. And very, very quiet.
At this point, runners were either by themselves or running with a pacer. Everyone was spread out along the course. Runners were exhausted, focused, and not interested in talking to othe rpeople.
All I could think about was the next step I was about to take.
When I talk about running, I often get asked about my music. Usually, I don’t listen to music. It’s distracting. When you’re this tired, any additional outside inputs or stimuli – even music – seem complicated, confusing, and overwhelming.
On this lap, I think I listened to about 45 minutes of music before I had to turn off the iPod.
The most frustrating part of this lap was that my muscles and joints felt fine, but I was unable to run. The constantly wet shoes finally taken their toll. Mud puddles had nurtured blisters on every single toe and the entire front pad of both of my feet. Each step was excruciating.
This lap reminded me of the Ave Maria sequence from Fantasia. Individual runners – little pools of light – painstakingly making a pilgrimage to the finish line. Not quickly, but inexorably, as if pulled by some external force. And the sky is slowly turning grey.
The finish line.
There was no big celebration at the finish line. I walked across the timing pad, we took a picture, and that was that.
Epilogue: You Have My Sword, and my Bow, and My Axe
I finished the run in 24 hours and 58 minutes. I think that’s the longest I’ve been awake. I consumed more caffeine during that period than in the previous six months combined. There were highs, lows, and a lot of learning.
The hardest part of this race was not the roots, although that’s what the course is known for. The hardest part was running in the dark. One of the reasons I like running is that it provides the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. No technology, no distractions. In the darkness, all you get is a tiny pool of light: just enough to see the path in front of you. There’s an entire forest, and all you get to see is some dirt and roots. And a few headlamps twinkling in the distance. It’s hard to describe how frantic I felt at times, not being able to see anything around me. Physically, 100 miles didn’t feel substantially different than 50. Mentally, the challenge was the darkness.
When I crewed for Mike at Badwater, he mentioned that picking a good crew is one of the most important components of a successful race. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and I didn’t understand why that would be the case until the end of the 4th lap of this race. Going into the 5th lap, I felt like I was suffering from information overload, even though the number of ideas I had to hold in my head was very small. Case in point: I had to choose which jacket to wear on the final lap. Despite being a binary decision, this seemed like an insurmountable task, so I deferred to Georgia to help me decide. Decisions like that, so late in the race, can make or break a finish.
To sum up: I had a great crew. Dad and Georgia were incredibly supportive, upbeat, and helped me make good decisions. Thanks so much, you guys. I could not have done it without you.
After finishing, I promptly pronounced I would never run another 100-mile race again. Just over 24 hours later, I’m taking less of a hard line towards that assertion. While I have no immediate plans to run another 100, I could see doing it again, sometime in the distant future. Just to see how it compares to this one.