Six days… the time frame and distances required of such an arduous run are simply beyond my comprehension. Having not yet made a foray into multiday races, I am proud of my modest back-to-backs but these “races” are a whole ‘nother level of intensity. When I first started running, the marathon seemed like the end-all distance, the goal to strive to be able to accomplish. When I learned about ultras suddenly the paradigm shifted, and 100 miles became the new pinnacle of distance running. I did not hang out at the marathon level for long, I ran one in November and registered to run a 50k two weeks later. Two months later I found myself up to my ankles in cold mud with bare feet, 16 hours and 80 miles deep into a 24-hour race appropriately dubbed Delirium. Since then my ultra education has progressed, every preconceived notion about what is possible has been shattered and I have learned that races don’t have to stop at 100 miles, or 135, or 153, or 200, or 314, or even 3100. Witnessing, volunteering, and participating at Six Days in the Dome was an educational experience for me and I think I came out of it with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in ultrarunning (as well as a barefoot running record).
The Back Story
I saw when 6 Days in the Dome appeared on the Ultrasignup website and reading about “the ideal conditions” that were to be present during the race made it an enticing prospect especially since I had expressed the wish prior to improve upon Peter Wayne Botha’s standing barefoot running record of 131 miles in 24 hours. The only reason I didn’t signup right away was timing… by my estimations I didn’t feel like I would be well prepared by August to attempt improve upon that distance. I figured the most ideal time would in fact be one year later after more training and after more than one 100 mile run completion (which was painfully slow as well). The only problem… this race would not be an annual event, one time only. Well, sometimes logic succumbs to a feeling, which is what happened here. As the registration quickly filled up I was enticed by the international field as well as the history and caliber of the runners. Suddenly I did not want to miss the chance to run with Valmir Nunes, Connie Gardner, Sharon Gaytor, Joe Fejes, Kenji Okiyama, and Zach Bitter among many others all in the same venue. But by now registration had long since been filled/closed. So in June, just 2 months away from the start I emailed R.D. Joe Fejes asking if he needed volunteers for the event and maybe, just maybe would be there be a time frame in which I could run for 24 hours? He wrote me back saying yes, that I would be able to be the vegetarian chef for some of the international runners. I was in, now all I had to do was to get to the furthest Northwest corner of this country from my humble little historic community in the Southeast corner.
To prepare I elaborated on my Delirium training plan but without spreadsheets or mileage goals. Two months is too short of a period of time to do any real training so I figured the best bet would to be to run as little as possible but at good times. For example, I would go for an afternoon run before work, go to work for a solid 7 or so hours (in which I usually traverse about 8 miles average) and then enjoy the cool night for the best glycogen depleted run, all at easy paces. I also had a scheduled run mid July, the Cremator 50, that would be the last long run before tapering for Six Days.
The only other preparation had been my diet which had shifted radically in June in which I went from a plant/fruit based eat anything (besides meat) diet to a much stricter- no sugar (yes, even fructose), low carbohydrate diet which does incorporate meat, but not too much and only high quality and fatty meats. The diet served me well and I felt really good running the Cremator 50 in a decent time with little to no soreness the next day.
I arrived in Anchorage after a weekend of developing real community and developing self-reliance skills (as well an epic mead share and great drum circling) at the annual Southeastern Permaculture Gathering in Celo, North Carolina. I cannot thank enough Janie Brodhead, proprietor of the finest fresh foods and herbs store in Savannah, Brighter Day, for going out of her way to give me a ride to the airport in Charlotte. I think the positive glow from the weekend carried over and stuck with me throughout the next month and helped me during the run as well. I caught a ride directly to The Dome from the airport but it was around midnight and the doors were locked so I opted to stash my bags behind the building and set up a little camp on the roof of the entrance to the dome. This would have been fine but I was a little jet lagged, it was still light outside despite the late hour, and there were seagulls flying around squawking the whole time. I think they were curious about me and I tried to dissuade their friendship lest I wake up plastered with bird shit. Not a good start to an ultra, but fortunately all I endured was a rough nights sleep.
The next morning I immediately was introduced to Zane Holscher, Collette Zimmer, Lazarus Lake, and Dave Combs who were heading up the responsibilities of running the race. I was introduced as THE cook which threw me a little off as I was expecting to be working for someone else and focusing on vegetarian fare, however, I did not mention it and was willing to take on whatever responsibility was necessary to make the Six Days go as smoothly as possible. After a rundown of the facilities I had a little bit of trepidation about how everything was going to work out. Catering for 50-60 people is not a small task even under ideal circumstances, catering for 50-60 people who are trying to run for six solid days in a facility where the ad-hoc kitchen consisted of a few propane burners, a grill, some woks, and big boiling pots which are all located an eighth of mile away from the nearest sink and water source was going to be an extra challenging endeavor to say the least. But what else are ultras about if not challenging yourself?
I received a copy of the meal schedule… large courses every eight hours at 4 a.m., 12 p.m., and 8 p.m. with standard snacks available 24/7 including fruit, nuts, candy bars, sodas, and water. Since breakfast was not a part of day one, and lunch was simply sandwiches I set about to organize the supplies and prepare for the impending cook-a-thon. This did not last long though, soon I was being hounded to make coffee, make tea, look up obscure age group records and hand out timing chips. The Six Days was about to begin and my task was already underway.
After working out issues with the chip timing system, the runners were off and the race was underway. Although Zach Bitter was the highlight of the beginning, running consistent sub 7 minute miles in search of the elusive 11:30 hundred miler, Valmir Nunes was making incredible progress as well, and Joe Fejes and David Johnston looked like they were having just another day in the office. For the first few hours, wildcard Alec Blenis, running the 24 hour, appeared to be trying to maintain pace with Zach, but this turned out to be the hubris of youth and he admitted defeat after a mere 33 miles.
I started cooking the first dinner, spaghetti with the various accompanying sauces in the early afternoon. It was in the preparation that the shortcomings of the facility for catering purposes became apparent. Just to make a pot of pasta I had to 1) carry the pot from the “kitchen” to the dishpit, a little less than an eighth mile 2) carry the pot filled with 6 or so gallons of water back to the burners 3) boil water, cook pasta 4) carry the dirty pot back to the dishpit 5) wash pot and finally 6) return pot to kitchen for a combined distance of close to one half mile… just to make pasta. Little did I know this half mile trek, completed while lugging supplies on my shoulder would be completed many, many times throughout the first four days.
At 8 p.m. Collette and Zane and I served the first dinner and although it was well received we had a fair amount of leftovers. We decided to adjust our portions down just a bit for the next day. It was also about this time that it was apparent Zach Bitter was no longer on pace for a sub 11:30 hundred due to stomach issues although it was obvious to all observers that the potential existed and it will only be a matter of timing before the 100 mile record gets improved upon again. After a “bad” race he completed the 100th mile in 12:08. Among the six day competitors, Nunes had an early lead and would throughout the night complete over 140 miles in the first day. Liz Bauer was intent keeping the pace with MaryLou Corino, of Italy, and both put up many miles in the first hours. It was really awesome to watch.
On the second day I had little time to pay attention to the race as we had a full schedule of meals to prepare and I fell into the rhythm that would dictate the passing of my time until I would get a chance to run on that Friday. My schedule thus became sleep: from 12 p.m. until 3 p.m. and again from 12 a.m. til 3 a.m., prepare and serve food, wash dishes: all other times. It was also on the second day that I learned an important lesson about multi-day runs- the first day, everyone is a little nauseous and they don’t feel like eating much, the second day, they’re ravenous! Our decision to tone down portions after the first day overlay was not the brightest, runners burned through meals so fast I had to cook more during the meals to try and keep up. From day three onward nutrition demands lied somewhere in-between those on the first two days, but we always made extra just in case.
Also on Day 2, I was able to take enough time to watch Traci Falbo completing the final laps of her impressive 48 hour run in which she set a new American record as well as a new world record for indoor/track. I have not seen anyone give more of herself during any race ever and with four minutes left in the race, she collapsed in exhaustion/elation after her upper body was increasingly, slowly, leaning to the side until she could not longer support herself. It was one of the most dramatic moments I have ever seen in a race and I felt privileged to have witnessed it. No matter how hard I push myself to new levels, I will remember Traci’s run as an example of literally giving every ounce oneself and never stopping until it is impossible not to.
Temporary reprieves from the kitchen came in the form of a few catered meals throughout the week and my saving grace was a local volunteer named Melissa, who arrived every morning and kept me sane while assisting in the preparation and cooking. She was a hard working kind woman and we enjoyed sharing stories throughout the days.
After an intense Four Days in the Kitchen that left my upper body sore, Zane took over the kitchen duties for the remainder of the race so I could get a solid six to eight hour rest before Friday morning. I set up my supply table the night before with dates, pecans, oreos, ensure, salad, perpetuem, coconut oil, and vespa. I woke up at 7 a.m. anxious to start running.
At 10 a.m. Dave Combs signaled the start for myself and 7 or 8 other runners who were running for a 48 hour time period. I really had no idea how the race would turn out as every mile past 100, if I made it there, would be unknown territory. I began the race feeling good although my entire upper body was sore, I had not run all week and so my legs felt fairly fresh. Originally I had intended to go out at an 8:30 pace until I burnt out and would have to resort to my “trashed” pace of 11:30, but after having a long informative conversation with Sharon Gayter, I realized that a continuous even effort would be a more practical strategy. She had infinitely more experience running these types of races and we had similar time p.r.’s for most distances so I felt as though I would be wise to adhere to advice from my elder. We started the run and I stuck to an easy 9:45-10:00 pace, with occasional 9:15’s thrown in to bank a little time for bathroom breaks. This went well and although I started off feeling strange I soon fell into the rhythm and the miles just started to tick off. At this point in the Six Day race, I was the fastest person on the track so it was mostly a solo race with little conversation from the other runners. Leigh Moser was putting up some good times early in the 48 hour so occasionally I honed in on her and kept pace. I did not eat much in the first part of the day, I wanted to avoid any potential stomach issues (especially after Zach Bitter and the Swedish Fish Sabotage). At three hours in I started to replace some calories, but I relied mainly on liquids in the form of Hammer Perpetuem.
I soon learned why some of the runners were dismayed by the surface, although it was a “rubber” track, it was more like a thin 1mm spray paint of rubber over the most incredibly dense concrete. It was much more like running on concrete than a standard soft bouncy track. Being indoors, the facility was illuminated solely with florescent lights with no windows, so there an eerie atmosphere that pervaded the strange space that would not be present in an outdoor race with natural lighting. It had no physical effect, but I could see that over the course of the week this would produce a strange psychological effect on runners and it made the passage of time that much more abstract. I believe it was David Johnston who made the comparison that the race was like running circles around the inside of a Costco. Also, although the temperature was moderate, the humidity at Dome seemed to rise throughout the day, perhaps being a sealed, pressurized facility the collective energy of the runners was building up in the atmosphere.
As the first 12 hours ticked by I realized that I was maintaining pace fairly easily and consistency was turning out to be a good strategy although I was not leaving myself much of a cushion to reach my goal of 135 if I had to slow dramatically. At this point I had eaten a nice big salad with olive oil, some sweet potato and beet chips with hummus and guacamole, coconut oil by the spoonful, and four scoops of Perpetuem. I knew I was running a huge caloric deficit but this is what I had been training to do so I felt fine. At this time I just focused on maintaining pace and getting to the 100 mile marker in steady time.
At 16 hours, 43 minutes into the race, I crossed the invisible mile marker 100 at almost exactly my preplanned speed of 10 min/miles. The steady pace was working great and I felt no pain and little exhaustion and gotta an extra mental boost with a new 100 mile p.r. (although I am now curious how fast I can do just 100). Although this put me in a great position with 7 hours, 15 minutes left until the timer would go off, the race was far from over and I did not allow myself to lose gusto although I did take a quick celebratory walk around the track while drinking an ensure which is one of my favorite drinks which I normally abstain from due to sugariness. At hour 17 I was back on course and calculating the average speed I would need to maintain to hit the planned 135. Just 12 minute miles were all I had to do (for the next 7 hours) and realizing this I slowed a little allowing myself a little break and focused on running each lap under three minutes. In retrospect I think that I could have maintained a faster pace here but I stuck to the plan… after all, every mile past 101 was new territory and I was wary of overconfidence.
At some point in the late quarter of the race I was able to totally succumb to the flow of the run and tick off many miles in a state of total meditation. This is my favorite part of running on a track or a road or any easy course where one does not have to be totally intent on the terrain to avoid calamity. It was late in the race and I closed my eyes halfway, focused on paying attention to my breathing, and put my entire body into rhythm with my rising and falling breath. I lost all concept of time and through the cracks in my eyelids I could only see a few feet in front of me but this was all that was needed to follow the white lines. I felt very relaxed, much like water flowing through a river, and I was no longer in “race”, just running. I ignored all clocks and lap splits during the few times I fell into this state, and waking up out of them I would find that a half an hour had gone by in what seemed like minutes, and also that I was maintaining a perfectly even pace the entire time. Returning to full consciousness I felt refreshed and ready to continue after these mental interludes.
The last four hours of the run were very tough miles and it was only around hour 22 when I only had to run seven miles to hit my goal of 135 that I realized I was going to be successful and allowed myself to crack a smile. I listened to one of my favorite albums on my headphones at this point and I felt simultaneously incredibly high and extremely emotional, I cried for a few laps and had no shame about anyone seeing me in a state of heightened emotional vulnerability. I kept running and pushing until the end until I hit some arbitrary number of laps with about 10 minutes remaining. I said, “THAT’S IT!”, ran a fast lap and finally stopped running. Thankfully, Jennifer Aradi was there and really pushed me to try and run a few more laps. At first I said, “No, watch this”, and sat down but she kept egging me on and I got up and did just a couple more laps before the buzzer went off. Jennifer, I cannot thank you enough for the motivation at this point.
When the timer finally did go off, I found I had completed 533 413.6 meter laps for a total distance of 136.98 miles, or 220.49 kilometers. I was ecstatic and incredibly weary after slowing down finally. After a few celebratory hugs I hit showers, found the handicap shower seat and sat down letting hot water just pour over me. For about 20 minutes I just sat there… this was the most enjoyable shower I’ve ever taken. After the shower I hobbled around the track a few times taking pictures with Valmir Nunes and Joe Fejes before taking a few hours nap… I planned to get on a plane bound for Ecuador at 8 p.m. Although the Six Days were still underway, my race was over and the keys to the kitchen were handed over. I lamented missing the end of the race in the which Joe Fejes set a new American record of 580 miles in six days and also saw Kenji Okiyama and Josh Irvan battling it out for the second place finish, but I was happy to have reached my goal and also improved upon the standing 24 hour barefoot running record.