by Sal Citarella
The One Ring Circus Comes to Town
1992 was a very good year. I was a young kid in the 50+ Age Group and picking up awards again. It was one of those highs in the roller coaster ride of injury and recovery that is called “running after forty.”
My club at the time, in Framingham, MA (second town on the Boston Marathon course), included an individual who had done something really unusual. He had actually competed in a six-day race. I no longer recall what distance he covered, but anyone who would even attempt such an event, let alone see it through, earns my undying respect.
No names will be mentioned. We know who we are.
Because of his interest in ultras, and contact with other like-minded souls, he convinced the club to sponsor a 24-hour event. It consisted of two levels of participation: solo running, and mile relay teams.
The rules for solo running are simple: go as you please; the clock is running whether you are or not.
The rules for the 24 Hour Mile Relay are simple, but they must be adhered to for the results to have any legitimacy and be comparable to other results. RW used to report on the event, periodically. Basically, the requirements are the following:
- A team may consist of no more than 10 runners
- A fixed order of running must be established beforehand; no substitutions are allowed
- A runner may drop out at any time
- Once a runner has dropped out, he/she stays out, remaining runners fill in the gap but maintain the established order.
As part of the preparation, I, exercising all the authority vested in me as Team Captain, called for a 4 a.m. practice at a mutually convenient track. My thinking was that we needed to experience running at a time of day when we normally would never have done so. It was this “out of the normal rhythm” aspect of the event which intrigued me in the first place.
To my great surprise and chagrin, no one else showed!
So, I went to my own neighborhood track and commenced a memorable workout. I am proud to say I did 10×1 mile, with a one-lap walk between each. Never done it before and never done it since. Admittedly, they started slow, but as you know, each repetition completed builds confidence, and as the sun rose, I really got into it. My last one was just over six minutes. I could have broken six, but I told myself there was no need to bust anything.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this workout was to be the highlight of the event, for me.
The 24 hours will be viewed through the mists of time. Some of the detail has been lost, no doubt, but that will not be significant. As you will come to see, the event is not made up of moments of extreme effort. Rather it consists of long periods of just having run, waiting around, thinking about running again, getting up to run, and then, doing a conservative mile just like you would in practice.
It proved surprisingly hard for us to gather 10 runners of any caliber for the event, let alone of somewhat equal ability. In fact, we as host team, went off with a very mixed bag of nuts, totaling only nine. Only half of us were even club members, several having been recruited by the race organizer from among doctors he worked with.
I had never met these MDs before; they were all nice enough. During the interminable periods of waiting around, we talked. What impressed me the most was the same attitude we runners often have, but in a sort of reverse context. In other aspects of my life, I’ve often felt, “I can do this” knowing that I have run to extremes and have a level of confidence in myself. These young docs, however, felt, “I can do this” with respect to the run, because of the extreme mental and physical stress they had endured in medical training. Frankly, it bothered me that success in medicine should be a function of being able to exist on coffee and endure fatigue. There is something wrong in that.
One of our team was a club officer. He was having leg problems and it was clear he was not going to win the event for us. Out of respect for his position, he led off. To my surprise, he went out and easily kept pace with the 24-hour runners. Had he forgotten he got to stop at one mile, and didn’t need to keep going? Our position was firmly established right from the “Ready. Set. Go!”
The other two teams were not only full teams, but better matched runners. Among the three, we had a solid lock on third.
As the Day Wore On
My legs were neither fastest nor slowest on the team. Trying to be consistent was the challenge. As day became afternoon, and afternoon became evening, and evening became night, the whole idea seemed to lose its charm. Getting up to run a mile, any sort of mile, at two or three in the morning is no more appealing than getting up to go to the john at that time of night.
The highlights included the fella from another team who came to the line in the middle of the night wearing a gorilla mask; reversing direction every six hours; and the men’s room becoming co-ed during the course of the night. Amazing what becomes significant to you in such an environment.
My worst fears were realized at midnight when I went to the line and another team was pulling in simultaneously. I had a race! Mercifully, we kept each other honest, but didn’t try to kick.
Dawn takes on a whole ‘nother meaning when you’ve been up all night looking for it. It literally warms the heart, soul, and body. Spirits picked up; paces picked up. New faces appeared at trackside.
The Grand Finale
We were just running out the clock, but our team attitude changed radically in the last 15 minutes when someone realized that we could break 200 miles. A couple of the remaining strugglers graciously yielded their final opportunities and we stronger runners picked up the available slots. With the help of a few cheers, we reached our new goal of 200+ miles. Average pace for us was 7:12 per mile.
The winning team, a male/female combination of younger, fitter runners, maintained an impressive sub-six pace for much of the time, totaling 229 miles. They called themselves Seppo, which, I guess, comes from the miler in the book, Once a Runner. I had actually brought my own copy with me, intending to read it between legs, but through boredom or interruptions, I never got very far.
One of my personal concerns had been lack of sleep. I am not a night person. Very little interests me enough to keep me up past ten. To my surprise, this never was a problem. I took two naps which probably netted me about 60 minutes sleep in total, and never felt sleepy. Perhaps the buffet of Fig Newtons, Oreos, and sports drink had us on a sugar high.
We didn’t interact much with the 19 solo runners. Those guys were pretty withdrawn and self-contained. We went by them easily enough, and then we sat down. They did not. I’m sure it made a very big difference. Five finishers broke 100 miles.
Looking at my splits, afterward, it is evident that lethargy played a big role. The night times slowed by 30 seconds or more, and the times improved with the coming of light. My final miles were the same times as my initial miles. Because of having started with less than a full team, and attrition, I ran 24 miles. Not that big a deal; not even marathon distance.
In the words of a famous Philosopher of my youth, Yogi Berra, “It was deja-vu all over again.”
I guess my assessment would be, if you’ve never tried it, do so. It was not physically demanding. The anticipation was worse than the perspiration. There was no wall, no recovery required, and you’ll sleep like a baby the following night. The outcome, in terms of miles covered, will depend upon the quality and uniformity of the team members. Pick your friends carefully. Not only will it improve the outcome in terms of miles, but you’ll spend a lot of time with them, regardless.
Officiating such an event was at least as difficult as participating as a runner. That aspect lasted well over the 24 hours allotted to running, and included the glamour of cleaning up after us.