Ultrarunners make their own music
San Diego 1-Day Race, Nov. 12-13, San Diego
By Frank Purdy


Take note, punned San Diego's newscasters on Friday, Nov. 11: The Rolling Stones are in town. The year's musical megaevent would enliven the San Diego scene, to be sure, but viewers were warned that wild horses couldn't drag you through the clogged downtown streets bordering the concert venue, a baseball stadium that during a normal event sees tens of thousands more empty seats.
Up around Sea World, there was a disruption that was much more low-key (hah!). Signs popped up in a city park, warning denizens of a picnic area and boat-parking area that traffic would be restricted due to a "Special Event" -- an event that was to bring the rock stars of ultrarunning to San Diego.
It was the San Diego 1-Day Race, which served a triple function on this weekend in mid-November: (1) The official 24-hour national championship; (2) A special competition between the American men's and women's ultramarathoning teams and their counterparts from Japan; (3) allowing a slob such as yours truly frequent, close-up looks at the elite of the sport. Frequent because the course was a one-mile keyhold-shaped loop, and they would constantly lap the likes of me. Close-up because with 84 solo entrants, all the capacity that was needed was one lane of road plus a path atop a jetty. Joining us were about 20 solo entrants in a 12-hour race and a handful of relay teams.
Like at least a few of the Rolling Stones' fans, this field was loaded. Among the standouts:
n Sekiya Ryoichi of Japan, 2004 men's 24-hour world champion.
n Sumie Inagaki, also of Japan, 2004 women's 24-hour world champion.
n Steven Peterson of Lafayette, Colo., 2004 American champion.
n Roy Pirrung of Sheboygan, Wis., a past American champion and the guy who recently broke 55-59 age-group records previously held by HCR's Jeff Hagen.
* John Geesler of St. Johnsville, N.Y., American 48-hour record holder.
* Ed Rousseau of Minneapolis, American age-group record holder for the six-day road race.
* Rebecca Johnson of Lafayette, Colo., 2004 American women's champion.
* Pam Reed of Tucson, Ariz., American track record holder for 24 hours..
* Sue Ellen Trapp of Fort Myers, Fla., American road record holder for 24 hours.
How 'bout this for an encore: More than half the field would meet or pass the coveted 100-mile mark. The musical tie-ins across town were obvious: "Start Me Up," sure, but remember that after an hour of running, you still have 23 left; "Paint It Black," no need for the toenails, which would change color on their own accord; "Let's Spend the Night Togther," OK ... but this isn't what Mr. Jagger had in mind.
And few Stones fans would find themselves in a personal audience with their rock faves before the show. Here at the ultra host hotel the day before the race, yours truly participated in an impromptu conversation involving Roy Pirrung and Vashon Island's Alex Swenson, both of whom have represented the U.S. in an overseas ultra race, and Bonnie Busch, one of the Midwest's best ultra runners. Their openness belied their expectations of running at the international level the next day -- me, I'm just trying not to finish last or least. The race packet carried a bib that read not your number, but your name. The packet also included, inexplicably, a tongue depressor with your name on it. Was this for the medics when they'd cart our exhausted carcasses off the course amid a demand to say 'Ahhhhhh'? Errrrggggg. You know, somewhere out there is a tongue depressor with your name on it ...
Race morning brought sunshine and a light, cooling ocean breeze at our bayside site. So ... this is why they have the race here. Off we went at 10 a.m., and after a first mile at an easy jog, I commenced walking about 4:30 to 5 minutes per mile. Three spots looked good for walking: a sharp corner just after the start/finish line (30 seconds); a slight uphill leading to the outbound jetty path, a grade similar to the underpasses on the Yakima Greenway, followed by the stretch most exposed to sunshine (about 2:30), then another stretch inbound on the road (2:00 or so). After a while, the body almost automatically walked at these points. Every mile we'd run over mats and listen for the "Beep!" from our computer chip. Another mile bites the dust (not a Stones recording). With this regime I hoped to beat my previous best of 55 miles, recorded over 12 hours, then hit a benchmark of 100 kilometers (62.2 miles), and afterward stay on the feet as long as possible and see what came o! f it.
After the all-jogging first mile of 9:56, I settled into a run/walk of about 11:15-11:30 per mile. Updates came every hour for every runner, both by loudspeaker and readerboard. At 15 miles, I changed shoes into an identical pair. So far, so good. Just shy of 16 miles at three hours, in 66th place. I'm not gonna worry about place just yet (if ever). The five-hour mark saw me just shy of the marathon mark and moving up to 55th. Marathon? Don't get excited. We're just warming up.
The top runners came early and often. The Japanese ran like precision machines. The top Americans also came past frequently, more than holding their own. We'd catch snippets of the team update off the loudspeakers -- it was a dogfight early on. Support people and other spectators would yell, "Go, Frank!" as I ran by. How'd they know that? Oh, it's on my bib.
I just missed six hours for 50k (31.1 miles), and all seemed well except for the nagging hot spots on the heels. The pounding was swelling my feet, so I switched to emergency backup: an old, worn-out pair of shoes one size too large -- a pair I had bought kinda by mistake but wore anyway. Inside was a store-bought foot insert that provided most of the support. Essentially I ran the rest of the race on these.
Previous ultras had found the 30s to be rough miles for me with recovery in the 40s. The 30s indeed were no fun as the hot spots morphed into full-bore blisters. The per-mile pace was slowing to about 13:30-14:00, when I didn't throw in extensive walking. Also, the nutrition was off despite frequent ingesting of water, gels, Powerbars and sports drink. The stomach simply wasn't taking this well. The sun went down reliably; the food stayed down but less reliably. The ever-tolerant spouse Carla, taking her position at our tent, suggested some of the race-provided chicken noodle soup. The soup went right down, and a recovery finally settled in from the late 40s into the early 50s.


A digression: Often the "You're crazy!" exclamation greets the news of how I spent my 24 hours. But at least I get a T-shirt, my name in results on a Web site, a bib with my name on it, and a plaque that's still in the mail. What about support people, such as the dear tolerant spouse, Carla? She slept not a wink and was on constant call for at-times eccentric demands. For Alex Swenson, the Vashon Island runner I had met the day before, it was his brother, John. These are the equivalent to Jagger's roadies, I guess, but they get even less attention. The runners couldn't perform without them.
Now ... back on the course. Distractions helped. Didja know Sea World has a fireworks show at about 10 p.m. every night? I didn't until now. Soon afterward, the strains of a lone bagpiper penetrated the darkness. The Scots always had a soft spot about struggling for a lost cause. At 10 p.m., the horn blew to end the misery -- er, race -- for 12-hour runners. They stopped and placed their tongue depressors to mark their progress. So that's it! I'll try to remember the reason for the tongue depressor, if I'm still on the course a half-day later. A few of the 24-hour runners had already had enough and left.
And we got a sense of the overall race. I overheard two of top Americans saying the top Japanese runner was struggling -- I wasn't the only one with stomach issues. The Americans were pulling ahead. Alex had moved up into fourth place.
My early 50s spurt was was short-lived. I came through 12 hours in 54 miles and change, but nausea and blisters were beginning to win out. Witnessing four fellow runner retchings along this stretch somehow didn't help. I tried the chicken soup somewhere in the late 50s, but it took a full mile of walking to force it down. Roy Pirrung kept offering encouragement as he zipped past time after time. Alex came by, noting that I had passed 55 -- "every step from here is a PR," he said. These guys were running world-class times yet helping out a back-of-the-packer. Hey, Stones fans: Would Mick do the same for you?
The 60th mile came just over 14 hours with a decision in hand. Find my way to 100k, then take a break and reassess. A lot of walking followed before I stepped into the tent at about 62.9 miles, approximatedly 14:50, or 12:50 a.m. PST. I'll take a quick nap and see if that shakes the nausea. I vaguely recall the 1 a.m. update before drifting off ...
... consciousness resumed just before the 4 a.m. update. So much for the nap being brief. As if the scene of runners going through the night weren't surreal enough, an ocean mist enveloped the scene and the tent, sans rain fly. An overhead street light offered light to assess the blisters -- whatever was a heel was a blister, on both feet. This is why I brought a needle and antiseptic ointment. Pop. Pop. I stared at the tent and pondered other options for spending an overnight in San Diego, but Carla suggested continuing with this one. So ... back on the feet at about 4:30 a.m. At least I can walk to 63 miles.
Then I walked to 64 miles. The legs were loosening up. A quick check of the board saw me in 62nd place, but a couple of miles would mean a couple of places in the standings. Maybe I can reach 70 miles. That sounded pretty good. What was needed was a nutrition fix. The catered table offered Pepsi (snarfed quickly) and very thick, heavily peppered cream of potato soup. I walked while downing that; a request at the tent found Carla providing a Starbucks Frappuccino, a standby of Ellensburg ultrarunner Dave Lygre. Now, Pepsi, potato soup and Frappuccino together make the culinary world gag itself with a tongue depressor; for me, it was the magical triad of food groups. I was off and running.
Dawn arrived. The sun burned through the mist. Everything changed. Psychologically, the end is in sight. Alex and brother John noted that I was back on the course. Seventy miles came and went, and those miles with the walk/run rhythm came in about 13:30, which isn't bad this late in the race. After another dose of the magical Pepsi/soup/Frappuccino food triad, I started racing toward 80 amid the startling discovery that I was passing people.
Jeff Hagen likes to dispense with walking in the final hours; after all my struggles, I just wanted to finish conservatively and comfortably. I waited until 23:30, then took off, with the final couple of miles being close to 11:00 pace. At mile 81, Carla handed me the tongue depressor, which finally found its place on the ground at 10 a.m. at 82.83 miles. That's a PR by more than a marathon. I also picked up six places after getting back into the race, finishing 56th out of 84. Given everything, I'll take it. Now, get me to the hot tub.
It was a good day for the Americans. Steve Peterson of Colorado took first in 148 miles, followed by Roy and Alex in 141-plus. The first Japanese runner was the first woman, Sumie Inagaki, fourth with 136 miles, with the top American woman being Pam Reed with 134 miles, good for seventh overall.
After that, it was rest, rehydration and eating pretty much whatever you want. Twenty-four hours on the move put a physical and nutritional strain on the body, and recovery hinges on replenishing caloric stores. Because for all the soup, fruit, bars, gels, capsules, etc., consumed during these 24 hours, one indisputable fact endures about ultrarunners: These rolling stones gather no mass. Selected results 1. Steve Peterson, Lafayette, Colo. 148.13
2. Roy Pirrung, Sheboygan, Wis. 141.67
3. Alex Swenson, Vashon Island. 141.22
4. Sumie Inagaki, Japan, 136.69
5. John Geesler, St. Johnsville, N.Y. 136.28
6. Konya Akos, Oceanside, Calif. 134.46
7. Pam Reed, Tucson, Ariz. 134.43
8. Joe Gaebler, Reserve, N.M. 133.049.
9. Masae Kamura, Japan 132.49
10. Ryoichi Sekiya, Japan, 132.41
Other Washington state finishers:
24. Carol O'Hear, Seattle 107.67
29. Jim Lawrence, Seattle 105.15
56. Frank Purdy, Toppenish 82.83
84 participants