It is nearly impossible to explain why you would want to run in circles for 12 hours. Luckily, it’s largely unnecessary to explain: either you already understand and do similar activities yourself, or, far more likely, you don’t and don’t and never will, on both counts. I do understand it, and enjoy doing it, and have a few friends who do as well, but I’m not aiming to recruit more, especially if you fall in my age group. I have enough competition already.
The 12-hour ultra I did last Saturday was a small one, so rather than having age group winners, overall first, second, and third place runners for men and women would be awarded based on who ran the greatest distances. The course was a 2.6-mile loop around a lake in the Pacific Northwest, and for 12 hours on a beautiful last-day-of-summer I would become very, very familiar with this loop. I’m a big fan of fixed-time ultras, as opposed to the more common fixed-distance races in which you run 30 miles or 50 miles or 100 miles or more (yes, more—you wouldn’t believe how much more). Fixed-time ultras are almost always run on a short loop course like this one, and as a result even a lot of hardcore ultramarathon runners don’t see the appeal. You know you’ve entered a whole new realm of crazy when even other crazy people avoid your activities.
Shrug. I’m someone who easily gets lost, and there’s almost no chance of that happening on a course like this: keep the lake to your left and you’ll never go astray. What’s more, fixed-time-race aficionados like that you can determine your own goal. If you want to do 50K, you can do it and call it a day, even if it only took you half of the allotted time. No DNF, no head-hanging shame of having failed to cross the finish line. You did cross the finish line, a great many times. Sweet.
The biggest challenge of a race like this is, as Cool Hand Luke was admonished to do, getting your mind right. Twelve hours is a long time to keep moving, and every time you come back around to the start and there’s junk food to scarf down and chairs to sit in possibly forever, getting yourself to go back out for one more loop just one more loop takes more and more resolve. And yet—it’s just another 2.6 miles. That’s not so bad. Even walking slowly that would take barely an hour. Look at those trees; aren’t they beautiful? And look how happy that dog is bounding along ahead of you. How sweet of those other runners to cheer you on as you passed them. They’re probably doing the 24-hour race. Now that’s truly crazy.
The trickiest part comes near the end of the race, when you need to figure out which loop will be your last and you have to break out the math. I actually like math and used to be pretty good at it, stereotypes about numbers-challenged English teachers be damned, but after more than ten hours of propelling myself forward on a fraction of the calories it takes a body to do so, trying to calculate how much time it would take to do 2.6 miles at my current pace and subtracting it from the time I had left simply wasn’t going well. At 11 hours I was in the middle of my 20th loop. Twenty had been my bare minimum goal. The question was, would I finish this loop with enough time to go for 21?
My family lives out in the PNW, and as much as I love ultras, I was in fact out there primarily to visit them. Or at least that’s what I told myself, and them, asserting that the race was simply a fun (yeah, Ma, fun, don’t look at me like I just swallowed a slug) thing to do with some friends in the area while I happened to be there. I planned on recovering from the race by spending time with my parents. My father is 91 and my mother 86; they have limited mobility, and the three of us don’t really share many common interests other than food. Perfect.
We watched a few episodes of the nature documentary Blue Planet. Penguins huddled in a giant scrum against the Antarctic winter, silently awaiting the return of the sun. We ordered take-out for lunch from a Chinese restaurant; my fortune cookie asserted that I would soon receive good news from an old friend. In the afternoon my father and I played Upwords, eschewing the rules and the point system and simply trying to use up all the letters. I helped him a couple of times when he got stuck, and we managed to play everything but one of the Zs.
It was, in short, a day without drama or even much activity, and yet I can’t remember the last time I spent a day like that with anyone, much less my parents. In that way it was rather nice, though privately I felt a little sad. Every time I visit my folks, there’s a strong possibility it may be the last time I see them both together. The next time it might just be one. At some point, it will just be my sister there, telling me what happened.
They’ve had long lives, good ones too, not without struggles and suffering of course since no one can avoid that, but they’re not doing any complaining. At the same time, I would not say that they are simply going gentle into that good night. Sitting there that quiet day with them, some sense of anxiety or desperation seemed to lurk in the corners of the room. Time was running out for them, for us, and we knew it. That evening I’d take the redeye back home and I didn’t know when—or for what reason, a race or a story about what happened—I’d be back.
The sun had gone down as I ran my last loop. The woods were now dark, still manageable without a headlamp, but twilight was fading fast, and I was a wreck. Everything hurt. If I’d pushed a bit, I might have had time for another go ‘round, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. The 20th loop would be my last. I felt a twinge of disappointment, but mostly I was satisfied.
Twenty loops ended up being good enough for me to be second overall female. The first-place woman beat everyone, even all the men, with 22 loops. When I heard her total, I admit feeling a wash of relief: ha! at least in this way it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d gone out for that 21st loop; I’d still have been second. But I’m the queen of second-guessing myself. Even now, several days after the race and many miles away, I recall the roil of emotions on what turned out to be my last loop, night falling, in pain, exhausted, yet still wondering: is there enough time left to go around once more?