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home > community > viewpoint > the olander park 24 hour: proving it all night long

The Olander Park 24 Hour: Proving It All Night Long
O.k. let's get this disclaimer out of the way right from the start: It's really not smart, sensible, or good for one's health to undertake a 24-hour run. Why, think of all of the other things you could be doing between noon on a fall Saturday and noon on a fall Sunday. You may not have even known they held 24-hour races. Who would run them?

The Olander Park 24 Hour: Proving It All Night Long

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By Don Allison
Posted Monday, 27 October, 1997

O.k. let's get this disclaimer out of the way right from the start: It's really not smart, sensible, or good for one's health to undertake a 24-hour run. Why, think of all of the other things you could be doing between noon on a fall Saturday and noon on a fall Sunday. You may not have even known they held 24-hour races. Who would run them?

Well, me for one. And a lot of other folks as well. How I ended up at the starting line of the USATF 24-hour championship race in Sylvania, Ohio is a long story. Suffice to say, a few years back the notion of running 100 miles lured me in, slowly but surely. I had accomplished just about all I was going to at "shorter" distances like 5 miles, 26.2 miles, 50 miles. You know how it works—when you get slower, just keep running farther; you are bound to set a PR and finish high up in the field.

The funny thing is that it didn't exactly work that way for me. I found my limit. It's just about 70 miles. If 100-miles races were only 70 miles, I'd do pretty well. Because in my first two attempts at the 100-mile distance at the Vermont 100-mile Endurance run, that's exactly the point where I began to come unglued. Things were progressing nicely for me in both 1996 and 1997 at Vermont until that point. Oh, I managed to go a few more miles each time, but both races ended with me back at the hotel in the middle of the night, the goal of a triple figure run still beyond my grasp.

So it was that I ended up in Ohio. Instead of the mountainous back-country course like Vermont, this race takes place on a one and an eighth mile loop in beautiful Olander Park. I know what you are thinking—a one mile loop! But really, this type of course has its benefits, as I'll get to in a moment. Also unlike Vermont, Olander Park was a 24-hour race, not a 100-mile race. So if I ended up falling short of 100, which was a distinct possibility, I'd at least be listed among the "finishers," instead of as a dnf. Believe me when I say that covering 89 miles and having nothing to show for it is very disheartening. Without trying to put too much pressure on myself however, I knew it was 100 miles or bust. I had something to prove, if only to myself.

Going it alone without any crew to provide emotional or physical support was a new experience for me, at least in an ultra distance race, as at Vermont I'd had a sizable entourage on hand. I felt it would not be a major problem, as my supplies and clothing would be available each time I came around the 1.128 mile loop. As it turned out, I met what would become my surrogate crew as soon as I walked in the door of the Comfort Inn in Toledo after a long 18-hour train ride from South Station in Boston. Fellow New Englander Dick Fedion and his wife Joanne were sitting in the lobby, along with Danny Ripka and his wife Pat, part of the ALARC team from Minneapolis. We quickly struck up friendships and I joined the ALARC group for lunch. A nicer bunch of folks you will never meet.

Having run Gil's loop six-hour race earlier in the year, I had some feel for this type of event. We drove by the course the night before the race; the setting looked picture perfect. The big question for me was how to get through the night without becoming too physically exhausted. I felt the Noon start would be an advantage, as the worst part of the night would come earlier in the race than if the race began at 4:00 a.m. as Vermont did. Having logged a full night's sleep before the race, I at least felt confident I could stay awake for the duration.

Thus, we all gathered on a beautiful Saturday morning for the start of the race. Runners and crew assembling tents and mini-camps made the place look as if a rock concert were about to get underway. Armed with our own personalized computer tags to drop in the box upon completion of each loop of the course, 171 of us lined up for the start. A few were complaining about the strong sun and warmth of the day, but the air felt crisp. I would be more than happy to have a few extra degrees of Fahrenheit during the day for a few extra at night. Unlike the summer trail ultras, which are run at near peak daylight time, we would be running under the cover of darkness for half of the race. At a few minutes past Noon we began our journey. If I were back home in Boston, I'd have finished my run already, looking forward to the rest of the days' activities. Here, the rest of the day's and night's activities would consist of getting around the park as many times as possible.

I tried to find a pace at the start that was slow enough to be completely aerobic, but fast enough to be comfortable. In a way, the first few laps were some of the toughest in the race. no matter how I ran now I was going to be tired later on. My main goal was not too waste precious muscle glycogen. I fell upon a strategy of taking a five minute walking break every three laps and completely walking each tenth lap. Only with such a conservative strategy did I feel I would be able to make it through the full 24 hours. I chatted it up with several folks along the way, including some whom I had met through e-mail and others I had read about editing UltraRunning. Surprisingly though, I never found anyone who seemed to be running at a close enough pace to run with for more than a mile or so.

Within a half hour Andy Jones lapped me in pursuit of his 100-mile North American record. Yes, they keep such records, and this guy was really going after it. Watching him in his quest as the race progressed would be interesting. We all settled in, uneventfully racking up the miles. My legs did not feel great, but then again not terrible either. I tried not to think of how woefully unprepared I was for this race, having completed only one run as long as 20 miles since my Vermont debacle two months earlier. After four hours I stopped for a quick five minute massage inside the community center. Give up some time now to gain it later was my motto.

Sure enough, at 7:00 p.m. the sun began to set. Jones had been running so fast, it was hard to tell who was running up front in the 24 hour. I said hello to fellow Easterners Chip Merrow and Dave Luljack. Both were running easily and were cautiously optimistic. I exchanged greetings with Danny Ripka each time we saw each other, as well as the ALARC crew. I tried to stay in as good a mood as possible, thinking that like Norman Vincent Peale, I could laugh myself to 100 miles. Or maybe laugh my way to 70 and then cry my way to 100. There seemed to be no sense in taking this exercise too seriously.

I reached 50 miles at 9:15, feeling confident that another 50 was in the cards. Then I remembered that I had felt the same way at Vermont the past two years at 50 miles. As midnight approached word was that Jones was closing in on his record. He made it, reaching his own personal finish line in an astounding 12:05. That's 7:15 per mile for 100 miles. He went through the marathon in 2:55 and ran another 74 miles. Wow. I still had 39 miles to go to join the century club.

An inky blackness had enveloped the course, but in a way it felt comforting. No harsh sun to shed light on this seemingly silly pursuit. A few times during the night, I detoured off the course into the adjacent community center. Id been warned not to go into the center, as the lure of the roaring fire and comfortable chairs would make me not want to leave. I felt it necessary however, to go into the center for the food being served throughout the night, as well as coffee to keep me awake. Rather then defeat me, the trips into the center only made me more motivated. Seeing the half dozen runners slumped in chairs or before the fire made me realize that this would not be my fate this time, at least not yet. I thought of all my friends in Boston, at home and comfortable asleep in their beds.

The night was virtually perfect for running, with comfortable temperatures and no wind. A heavy condensation soaked the clothes and shoes I had left outside my bag though. I had forgotten to bring a flashlight, making my search for clothes and supplies that much more difficult and time-consuming. After 70 miles, I began to slow dramatically. Surprise! My lack of conditioning was showing more than anything else. The good news was that I was still alert and eager to keep moving. The bad news was that despite the pool-table flatness of the course, my legs and feet were damn sore. I had eight and half hours to complete the final "marathon" of 26.2 miles. How hard could that be?

Pretty hard actually. Any kind of running at all was becoming increasingly difficult, but extended walking was beginning to make me tired. The laps, which I had been clicking off so easily hours ago, were now were not giving themselves up so easily. It would be a slow grind to the finish, but my motivation remained rock-solid.

The sun returned right on schedule at 7:00. I was hoping we could hold on to the cool air of dawn for as long as possible, but it warmed up pretty quickly. There were a lot fewer people on the course than when the sun went down 12 hours earlier. About one out of every three were running, only a few of them with any kind of authority. The leader board showed Luljack and Roy Pirrung locked in a tight duel for the lead. Amazingly, both were running with the same pace and form as when they started the race. Both appeared relaxed, offering words of encouragement each time they lapped me, which was now happening with increased frequency. No one happening upon the scene would have guessed these two were competing for a national championship. If ever there was a testimony for the good nature of the competitors in the sport, this was it.

8:15 a.m. 10 miles to go. Time for mental gymnastics. For some reason I had the image of the first 20 miles of the Boston Marathon route in my mind, a training run on which I take some runners I have coached in past years. Natick Center to Newton Center—God it seemed so far. I also imagined that I was running from Boston to my parents home in West Hartford, Connecticut, just about 100 miles. This would put in Manchester, with the Hartford skyline approaching. As ludicrous as it may sound, this is one reason why I have always wanted to run a 100 mile. Having done the Boston to Hartford trip hundreds of time by car since my youth, I always wondered what it would be like to run all the way. O.K, run and walk.

Even though I could not run for more than a minute or two a time, I experienced a brief burst of optimism. I thought I might be able to hold the pace for the remainder of the race; that would bring me well over the required 89 laps. I thought then I would do an extra lap to make it 101. This despite the fact that I was not really even running as much as throwing myself forward. The quad tendons that wrap around the knees were killing me on both sides, as were my feet. My right Achilles was sore and my feet felt as if they were burning up. I had brought four pairs of shoes and gone through all of them twice already. I changed one more time, but it did not help at all. I realized with six laps left I could not afford to stop and sit down anymore or I might not be able to get up again, my knees were so sore. My resolution to stay in a cheerful frame of mind was being tested now.

O.K, so the 100 was not going to come easily. I guess I knew it wouldn't. Pat Ripka was shouting encouragement every time I passed by their tent, which is now only every 25 minutes. With three revolutions remaining, the exhaustion that I was so worried about, that had defeated me in Vermont, overcame me. I was still sure I would make it, only because I could actually see what I had to do. When I told Jim Garcia of my Vermont dnf, he asked "What would have happened if you tried to keep going? Would you have fallen down?" I decided then to go until I fell down.

The final loop was as tough as the first 45 combined. As I trudged around the lake I thought how nice it was that I did not have to go around again. I had plenty of time, almost a full hour. I told myself to keep moving and you've got it. At 11:30 I dropped the 89th tag into the box. With other runners passing through there was some confusion. A volunteer put something in my hand then took it out. All I could think of then was going another 100 yards to the "100" marked in chalk on the road. I arrived at the spot and no one was there, so I veered off the road into the grass and collapsed. I fell asleep within a minute.

Obviously, the finish was not exactly as I had imagined it would be. Nearly an hour passed before race director Tom Falvey walked by and I was able to flag him down for help back to the community center. Fittingly I guess, in the medical area, the other runner stretched out on a cot was Danny Ripka, who had also run himself out, albeit going 42 miles farther than I did, to finish in fourth place. As fate would have it, I was the 54th and final runner to make the century mark, although he results show me with "only" 99.89 miles. I was supposed to take the metal marker from the volunteer and drop it in a box to show I had made 100. As RD Tom Falvey had found me next to the 100 mile mark, he knew I had done the extra 100 yards.

Although I certainly feel a sense of accomplishment and relief in finally having completed 100 miles, it's not what I will remember most about this race. The friendships I established and support I received from so many of the competitors and race directors Tom Falvey and Dave Payette seem more significant now, as well as the support and encouragement I received from my running friends in Boston. In retrospect, I guess I always knew that. Running achievements are great, but being able to share them with other people is what really counts in the end. Thanks you guys—I could not have done it without you. I guess there is a reason to run for 24-hours after all.



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