On June 20th, 2015, I ran the San Francisco Summer Solstice 24-Hour Endurance Run. The run took place right next to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge at Crissy Field. I had never run continuously for 24 hours before, and looking back, it was in incredible experience. The course for the run was a 1.061 mile loop around the Crissy Field promenade; and yes that is a lot of one mile loops.
Why Run for 24 Hours Straight?
Because if I hadn’t done it, I would forever be curious what it’s like to run for 24 hours straight. More importantly, I ran the event as a fundraiser to raise money for an academic scholarship in memory of LtCol Otis Raible, a fallen U.S. Marine aviator and a true American hero. The scholarship was being created by The Wingman Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps the families and survivors of fallen service members in our military aviation communities. The funds I raised for the run would give the inaugural scholarship a jump start. Brent Davis, a prior Marine and a talented filmmaker/videographer, put together a promotional video to chronicle the effort and to tell the story of Otis Raible and his Marines at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Click here to watch the video.
Looking back, there were several mistakes I made in training for this event and to be honest, I did a poor job, shame on me. However, the lessons I learned from doing it the hard way are solidified and will not be repeated…which has been a theme throughout my life, but that’s a different blog post entirely. First mistake, I did not have a structured training plan for the run, rather, I planned to gradually ramp up my weekly mileage volume to peak 3-4 weeks prior to the run. As you can tell from the chart below showing weekly mileage leading up to the race, the “gradual ramp up” turned out to be a consistently low plateau. I was completing weekly long runs between 10-20 miles and I was getting some serious elevation gain, running mostly trails in Big Sur and around the greater Monterey area. But, naive and unaware of what I was setting myself up for, I figured I could rely on pure grit and determination to keep me going for the 24 hour run. The course for the 24 hour run was completely flat and mostly on pavement, and while trail running with lots of vert is beneficial for fitness, it is not specific to the event I was training for. This mistake and lack of specificity in training would have serious consequences.
The second mistake was my fueling strategy, how would I eat during the day of the run? On a normal day, we pretty much know how to eat based on our activity level. But what if you are running for the entire day, instead of your resting metabolic rate, your body is working harder over a longer period of time, burning way more calories than you normally would. There are a number of different schools of thought on fueling strategies, and most of them are based on sound nutritional principles for endurance fitness. But nutrition, much like training in general, must be tailored to meet the needs of the individual. The problem with my nutrition strategy for my training, was that it was nonexistent; I did not have a strategy. I figured if I ate relatively well leading up to it, then I just ate tons of food during the race, that I would be fine. This was another mistake that would have serious consequences.
Another mistake I made with nutrition was the decision to drink a bunch of coconut water. Seems ok right? Coconut water has electrolytes and tons of good nutrients and minerals, but I misused this resource. I was lucky enough to have Vita Coco donate a two cases of their product to my cause. I picked up the cases the day before the race and thought to myself “this will be perfect for making sure I stay hydrated without worrying about losing too many electrolytes. The problem was, as I found out during the run, that my body was not used to processing coconut water, and especially not in the large volumes I was consuming during the run. I ended up visiting the porta-jon probably 10-12 times over the course of several hours. This was dangerous because at the time I failed to attribute this to the coconut water, in my tired state. I was continuing to perpetuate my GI distress when I should have just shared the rest of the coconut water with other runners. They likely would have been smarter and just stuck with water. All those trips to the porta-jon led to dehydration, fatigue, and a much slower pace.
The final lesson learned to highlight from this run was the importance of strength training in an ultra marathon program. The mindset: “all I need to do is log tons of miles” and “I don’t need to lift weights for distance running” is toxic and will lead to overuse injury. The IT band injury I took away from this race was largely due to not dedicating time on a weekly basis to strengthening my lumbar pelvic hip complex (LPHC). LPHC is a term I picked up in my UESCA run coach cert, fancy huh? The LPHC is the core driver in the kinetic chain involved in running, if it is weak, then it will break down, causing other muscles up the chain to pick up the slack and become overworked. That is exactly what happened to me. My glutes, hip flexors, core muscles, and lower back all gave up on around the 50 mile mark, leaving the IT band, quads, hamstrings, and calfs working overtime. So now, I do LPHC and core work weekly, at a minimum. I also dedicate about 20% of my weekly volume to high intensity running, either VO2max or lactate threshold runs. On long runs, the body mostly produces energy aerobically, using the oxidative energy pathway, but the other energy pathways are still working even if most of the time is spent at low intensity. Neglecting the ATP-CP and glycolytic energy pathways in training is a mistake, even for ultra running. For more on energy pathways, read this blog post and this blog post.
Pacing and Rest.
I did not really have a pacing strategy, per se. I planned to start slow, then get slower as the day progressed. This worked well for the first 40-50 miles, but when the sun went down, so did my luck. I failed to have a rest strategy, and I noticed a few of the frontrunners in the race were taking deliberate rest stops. They would literally stop at their tent, take off their shoes, and sleep for a short period. When they woke up, they were reenergized enough to keep going at a fairly strong pace. My mind was so set on powering through the night, I was concerned that if I stopped to sleep I would wake up after the race was over, so I stayed up. A mistake that had serious consequences. Those little power naps surely went a long way psychologically and physiologically for those wise enough to take them.
Running with the Jester.
I was lucky enough to run several laps with Ed “The Jester” Ettinghausen. He is a well-known ultra runner and is a very pleasant guy. He always wears a jester costume on his races, to remind himself and others not to take themselves too seriously. Ed is a motivational speaker and an inspirational athlete. This guy can run for days, literally! Very unique individual and I am happy to have met him and ran a few with him. Check out his Ted Talk.
Just when I was at my lowest point, in terms of morale, my wife Rachel showed up to run the last bit of the race with me. Leaving our three children with friends in Monterey, she traveled alone through the night on a shuttle and taxi to get to SF to save me. Without her showing up and running just over 18 miles with me, I would not have completed even close to 80 miles. She was practically walking beside me at that point because my paced had slowed drastically. Partly because of my left leg, I had developed intense pain in the outer portion of my knee, which I later found out was an IT band overuse injury. Also getting me through the night was all of the encouraging words from friends and supporters. The race director was receiving texts left and right from my supporters, as I passed by the start/finish, he would pick up a jog next to me and read off the kind words from friends , family, and supporters.
I finished at just over 22 hours, completing 80.636 miles, 30th out of 60. I was never under any delusions about finishing on a podium, but I had wanted to finish 100 miles. But looking back, it was such a positive and memorable experience, I will do it again some day. Only next time, I will train properly, fuel properly, work my LPHC and core, and take a few naps to recharge my batteries. And I will stay away from the coconut water.