I’d never done a 12 hour race before, but I’d heard of them. It’s pretty straightforward: the course is a loop – often a half mile or a mile – and you run around it as many times as you can in the time allotted. I signed up for it because I needed a long run in preparation for some races I’m doing later this year, and this seemed like a good way to get miles.
Going into it, I was apprehensive. We had a 0.9704 mile loop – just short of a mile. I was sure I was going to feel like a hamster on a wheel, just churning around and around and around. On the plus side, however, we would get an aid station every mile, and access to our personal drop bag too.
My plan was to run all 12 hours. I thought there was a slight chance I could do 60ish miles in that time, and a better-than-good chance I could cross the 50-mile mark. Those were the goals going in.
Before the race, I was chatting with a few other runners. The New York ultra community is extremely strong, and close. Everyone seemed to know each other, and it was fun to see that camaraderie. I also noticed that, in comparison to the west coast ultra community, the New York community has so much history. Joe Kleinerman, after whom the race was named, was the founder of the New York Road Runners, the organization responsible for the New York Marathon. Several people present knew him or had run with him.
This sense of community was further reinforced at the start of the race. There were about 60 runners at the start – it was a pretty small race. Richie, the race director, made some announcements at the beginning, including introducing several of the other runners, many of whom had won this very race several times in previous years and had come back to run it again. It was a star-studded field.
And, with those introductions, Richie blew his whistle and the race began.
During the first loop, I followed the group to get an idea of what the course was like. I realized that I’d be seeing it many more times that day, but I’d only get one shot at seeing it for the first time. It was actually very pretty – it was a winding asphalt path through a grassy park, with many trees and ample shade. The park featured a couple of baseball mounds and tennis courts. Best of all, there was an actual bathroom along the course, which, as many runners know, is a true luxury when racing.
During the first lap, I encountered the race photographer, who was walking the course backwards – with a lot of camera gear. I joked with him – I said he’d be able to get all the runners in the first ten minutes of the race, then he could go home! He laughed and said he’d be here all day. (I was impressed – he actually ended up walking 16 laps – about 15.5 miles – with all of his gear!)
I was running laps at just under 10 minutes each, which felt comfortable. After about ten miles, I feel in with another runner. He was a lap or two behind me and was planning to leave at the 6-hour mark for a family engagement. I learned that many runners were not planning to stay the entire time, instead opting to run for 6 hours or for some predetermined distance. One older gentleman’s goal was to walk a marathon, for example.
At mile 20, he and I went our separate ways. I was still keeping my 10 minute pace and feeling pretty good. The scenery still wasn’t boring, although now I could run the course on autopilot, which meant that navigating wasn’t a challenge.
However, it was warming up – the temperature would reach the low 80s. Also, the asphalt was really taking its toll on my feet. Each step felt like a challenge.
I still hadn’t taken a walk break during a lap, so I mentally committed to at least finishing a marathon before that happened. Once I reached the end of lap 27, I decided I would run four more – to get to 31 laps – which was the equivalent of 30 miles.
At this point, we were a bit over 5 hours into the race, and I was feeling exhausted. I started thinking about changing my goals so I could get off the course earlier.
Ahead of me, I heard a few runners chatting. One woman was saying, “You’ll get a second wind – we always do in long races like this. Just wait a bit and you’ll feel better.” I knew she was right, but it just seemed impossible to believe.
At hour 6, I picked up my phone to leverage the musical glory that is Pandora. I’d planned to listen to something extremely upbeat and fast to keep me moving. But, when I thought about the prospect of music with so much energy, it seemed like it would be too irritating, and my brain would have to think too much about it to stay focused on running. I picked an 80s pop mix instead.
I was really struggling at this point. The idea of spending four more hours on the course to get to 50 miles seemed horrifying. I couldn’t even imagine it – it seemed like there could be no worse fate than needing to stay on my feet for another twenty miles.
I have a personal rule for running – no texting, phone calls, etc during the run or race. I feel that we’re so connected and plugged in every other time of the day, and running should be a time to be separate from that. This race seemed different, however – since we weren’t venturing off into the wilderness, it seemed like we weren’t that far away from civilization. Since I had my phone anyway, and I was feeling so disheartened, I broke my cardinal no-texting-while-running rule and sent a few messages to Will.
I walked another lap, thinking hard about what to do. I’d set a couple of goals, and I really didn’t want to fail at meeting them. I knew I needed to get the miles in for training, too. But I really was feeling miserable, and I knew that there was no such thing as a DNF (Did Not Finish) designation for this race; they just counted the number of miles you ran and that was your score.
At that point, I decided it was okay to stop running. I reached the end of my lap and broke another rule of mine by sitting down during a race. There was a very comfortable folding chair near the aid station, and I slumped into it, grateful to be off of my feet.
I chatted with the man who was working the aid station. He’d brought a spray bottle, and had been spraying runners to keep them cool. I was a huge fan of this, and he told me that when he coached, he was known as the coach who brought the spray bottle. I asked what he coached, and he said he was the Head Coach of the Millrose Athletic Association, which is apparently kind of a big deal, since their yearly relay has its own Wikipedia page. He was pretty surprised (and maybe a little offended? I couldn’t tell for sure) that I hadn’t heard of it, and we agreed that my ignorance of this prestigious event indicated that I clearly wasn’t a very dedicated runner.
Running a race engenders a very strange psychology. Most of the time, runners actually really want to run and are just looking for an excuse to do it. That’s why runner encouragement works so well.
There was one runner who came into the aid station and announced he was going to walk a lap. I jumped up and said I’d walk it with him, because any forward movement is a win in a race like this. After one walking lap, we ran a few. Then I sat down again.
A few minutes later, a girl came into the aid station, and I tagged along with her. She was walking a third of a lap, then running the other two thirds. Before I knew it, we’d done several miles, and I was feeling much better. I’d crossed the 40 mile mark.
I thought back to the woman from earlier in the race – this was clearly my second wind.
At 10 hours and 37 minutes into the race, I’d just finished my 51st lap. 52 laps was the 50-mile mark.
In my my mind, a 50-miler under 11 hours is a respectable time, because it’s the qualifying standard for the prestigious Western States 100 race. I knew this race didn’t count as a qualification race, but I also knew that I’d be frustrated with myself if I finished 50 miles in over 11 hours, especially since I was close. I ran my 52nd lap, finishing in 10:49.
With just over an hour to go, I gave myself permission to walk as much as I wanted – everything here was upside given that there was no chance of my crossing the 60-mile mark.
Partway through my next lap, I found a runner sitting on a bench. He looked wrecked, so I encouraged him to walk a bit with me – which he did. After the race, he told me he probably wouldn’t have kept going if it weren’t for that. Jut like me, he was another runner who really wanted to run, but just needed an excuse.
A bit later, I was chatting with a runner about Zipcar, which was how I’d gotten to the race that morning. A runner ahead of me was curious, so she and I talked about Zipcar for a few minutes. Then I asked her about her running, and was immediately humbled to be in the presence of such an amazing athlete.
Her name is Alicja Barahona, and she’s run 350 miles self-support across the Alaskan tundra – several times. She’s run350 miles across the Sahara, and she’s run 100+ mile distances two weeks apart. She’s come in first in some extremely grueling 100+ mile races, and she’s been the only finisher in some distance races where everyone else dropped out due to extreme weather conditions. She finished first, five consecutive years, in a 24-hour race. Needless to say, she’d run this 12 hour race before – and come in first, of course.
In any case, I was in awe of her accomplishments. She seemed happy to talk about her experiences, so I shut up and listened to her incredible stories. We parted ways after a bit.
After finishing my 55th lap, we only had 11 minutes to go, so I decided I was done – for real this time. Then, a woman came through the aid station and said there was no way I could stop now. She was right – I was still racing, and I really did want to keep running. She and I ran until the airhorn went off, making it almost a full lap around together.
I ran just over 54 miles.
It was a really, really hard race for me – much harder than I anticipated. The combination of the asphalt and the weather really pushed me, and I felt like giving up more than once.
One of the things I really liked about this race was the sense of camaraderie. This manifests itself in two ways: the fact that we all finish at the same time, and the fact that we’re all on the same course. This latter, specifically, means that you have a lot of opportunities to run with, and talk to, people who you wouldn’t encounter in the course of a normal race – because they’re either faster or slower than you. Because this is a lap race, you can sync up with people who are a couple of miles ahead or a couple of miles behind you and chat for a bit.
Also, it means that the finish-line is for everyone, from the guy who ran 84+ laps (he looked like a machine!) to the people who ran just under 40 laps. We all get to celebrate together.
I stayed for a bit to congratulate runners I’d met along the way, but didn’t stay for the awards ceremony – I had to return the aforementioned Zipcar, and was worried about traffic back to Manhattan.
Overall, though, this was a really fun race, even if it was really hard. I’d definitely run another timed race again.