In the evening of Saturday May 1st, Day 1 of the 2005 Self-Transcendence 6 Day race in Flushing-Corona Park (Queens, NY), I joked with legendary Brooklyn runner Luis Rios, Utah’s Fred Riemer and others that “I saw the ghost of Jackie Robinson out at the south end of the loop!” Not only did they catch my reference to the classic Harvey Keitel/ Paul Auster film BLUE IN THE FACE (in which the ghost of Jackie R. really does appear in the middle of Brooklyn!), Luis quickly quipped “You’ll be seeing Jackie Robisnon all right sometime on Day 3!”
I survived Day 3 as well as the rest of the 6 day race, one of the great running experiences in my 34 years in the sport. With thoughts of Jackie Robinson in my mind, I knew that somewhere at home in our huge family library of sagging bookcases and boxes of dusty antique hardbacks was something Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey– the man who first broke baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie R.– had written that for me summed up some of my feelings about the 6 day experience.
I have heard plenty of ultrarunners over the decades attribute their poor performances or DNFs to “bad luck” or “being snake-bitten.” But do what extent do we make our own “luck” and control our destinies in taxing endurance events?
Branch Rickey observed that
“The more we compress and confine the element of luck– luck has its place in games; it is in the English language; it is in the dictionary, and we ought to keep it there– and put it in a small area, just to that extent do you enlarge the area for the exercise of a man’s own functions in controlling his workings, his destinies, and his game.
What is the greatest single thing in the character of a successful enterprise, in the character of a boy, in the character of a great baseball player? I think it is the desire, a desire that dominates him, a desire that is so strong that it does not admit of anything that runs counter to it, a desire to excel that so confines him to a single purpose that nothing else matters.
That thing . . . makes men have good health, … makes men change their bad technique to good technique, … makes capacity and ability in men.
That (thing) makes a team with 80% possibility come from 60 to 70%, it makes them approach their possibility; and with a dominant desire to excel, that simply TRANSENDS them into a great spiritual FORCE.”
from Safire, William, ed. “Branch Rickey Discovers The Quality That Makes a
Ballplayer Great,” GREAT SPEECHES IN HISTORY. New York: W.W. Norton
& Co., 1997.
Only once during the entire New York 6 Day Race did anyone directly ask me what made me try the 6 day, what kept me going, etc. This came from an extremely friendly and intelligent runner from New Zealand, Jade Lynn (Jade’s lovely 2.5 year old daughter was at the race, and contributed to my missing my own daughter Amalia even more than normal). In my tired state I tried to explain that while I did not call it self-transcendence, there was an inner FORCE inside my head and heart that throughout my life and long running career just seems to take over and drive me.
When the weather isn’t going my way, when my feet ache so much it feels like Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays or even Mike Piazza (who WAS actually swinging his bat for the Mets not a mile from the Meadow Lake path on which we ran!) are hammering them with their bats, when runners like “Ms. Smooth” Dipali Cunningham or “Mr. Smooth” Martin Wagen are just lapping me endlessly and smilingly, never breaking stride nor seeming to even breathe– this inner force just seems to kick in and push me onward, sending positive vibes through my mind and body.
This very talented Swiss runner, Martin, also turned out to be gifted as a poet and philosopher. While running along next to me on the last morning he looked up at the huge trees that shaded the path and stated emphatically that “We are all so lucky to be out here. It’s not for me to say, but it seems there are many people sitting inside, unhappy with life.” This discussion continued on in a similar vein for some minutes before Martin slowly cruised away, always smiling and always looking in control (he would finish with 441 miles, behind the phenomenal 478 of my friend Danny Ripka and Dipali’s 474).
Now, one week later, I am home trying to get back to some sort of “normal” routine! I am still waking (only once now) in the middle of the night wondering if I can throw my shoes on and go get in a few more miles. As a longtime race director, I have also started daydreaming about a multi-day “Tour De El Paso” in which we could experience some of the hundreds of miles of scenic canal paths and trails and roads that the southern Rockies offer us.
I believe I am a more full and complete person for having participated in the New York 6 Day event. I have been fortunate to have done trail and mountain races, track races, runs in different countries etc. in my life. As writer Gary Cantrell has observed, “I like chocolate, but I wouldn’t want to eat it all the time.” The corollary to this is “Variety is the spice of life.” I feel too many USA runners today DO eat chocolate all the time, sticking to trail races, especially the classic 100 mile runs like Western States or Leadville or Vermont, without ever trying a multi-day stage race or “Go-as-you-please,” or an orienteering ultra, or a road or track 24 hour event, or anything new and different.
I can truthfully say that while I brought up the back of the pack at the 6 day (318 erratically-paced miles), my body (especially my knees and feet) was less sore afterwards than after plenty of shorter trail races and all-out road marathons and even 25 and 30Kms. Sure, I was in sleep debt after the 6 day, and I had some general soreness in my ankles and shoulders that I don’t normally have, but overall I was NOT “beaten up” by my long run on the paved Meadow Lake bikepaths.
“Mr. Rickey,” the Umpire said then, “listen to me. Give the boy credit. He made his own breaks.”
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly ….”
From: Dorion, Mark G
Sent: Wed 5/11/2005 7:12 PM
Cc: Dorion, Mark G
Subject: 6-Day Race: You’re Running and You’re Running . . .
**Sri Chimnoy 6 Day Race 2005: “You’re Running and You’re Running and You’re Running Away” **
I arrived at the starting line at noon on Sunday May 1st via a route that was circuitous both literally and figuratively. After having to cancel my Western States plans due to a long-put off Family reunion the same day, and then finding the Cornbelt 24 hour race to be full, I searched for a race in which to test the results of my hard training of the past 6+ months. Just a few weeks earlier (c. April 3) I staggered to a horrendous performance at the Barkley in the wilds of eastern Tennessee, suffering through 40 miles (2 loops) well over the 26:40 time cut-off. I believed I had a much better long race in me.
Several old friends/ advisors had recently told me in so many words that I was wasting my time with trail races and that even though I am old, I had still had decent road speed. I doubted that (my last local 5Km was over 20:00!), however I do know that I manage to put in some good long runs on the hilly, 4-5,000′ elevation roads around my neighborhood and generally feel less sore than after a long trail run.
I enjoyed the pre-race introductions at the starting line at Meadow Lake in Queens; the dramatic-voiced announcer reminded me of high school track races and also post-collegiate meets where each runner was announced and expected to jog out a few steps and wave to the crowd. I felt out of my league at the 6 day as Danny Ripka, Dipali Cunningham, Rimas Jakalaitis (one of just a few people to ever run over 600miles in 6 days– and he did it as a SPLIT in a longer event!) and other horses were announced.
The first 24 hours featured excellent weather and one of the best nights for running I have ever experienced. We had a lovely orange half-moon shining over the calm lake waters. A number of us kept waiting for Jackie Gleason’s (OR Cedric The Entertainer’s, who will play Gleason’s role in the NEW Honeymooners) face to appear in the moon. I ran quite a few laps with my friend Danny Ripka, who I was jealous of not because he is a faster runner or better looking, but because he has the best handlers I have ever seen in any ultra, led by his lovely, indefatigable wife Pat! We kept remarking that while on paper it might look like we had gone out too hard, in reality we were taking advantage of the fine weather, which was predicted to turn NASTY by the 36 hour mark.
I was over 96 miles at 24 hours, and this included two separate 45 minute attempts to sleep or rest. In the dorm tent (think MASH, including Korean winter weather) I just could not stay warm even with two sleeping
bags. In the rental car I got warm and comfy, but still could not sleep (even my teddy bears which my daughter Amalia had packed for me did not help. I gave up on the teddies and gave one to a charming little girl from New Zealand whose always-smiling Poppa, Jade, was running in the race).
I plugged through 100 miles in about 25:51and still was not sleepy. But by night #2, and with some off and on heavy rains and winds, my legs and eyelids finally began to get heavy.
Old friend and world class multi-day runner Trishul Cherns and his CUTE puppy Dart had jogged a few laps with me off and on and warned me that Day 2 would be the toughest. Not only was he correct about this, he was correct about every piece of advice he dispensed to me! During night 2 I could not stay warm and was depressed and thought repeatedly of throwing in the towel. BUT with Trishul’s advice in mind and a timely phone pep talk with my wife and coach Helen (she is way smarter than I will ever be, thank goodness), I said– Hey– it is Day 3– I can get out there and do this!
I only put in 41 miles on Day 3, and I was still cold much of the time (the third night was brutal– one local weather station reported wind chills below 40F, with light rain). In fact, I was much colder in this race than I have ever been in 5 attempts at the Barkley Mountain races in Tennessee, several of which I have run alone, at night, in blowing snow. The CLIMBS in a big mountain race always warm me up, whereas in the 6-Day we were always in the path of cold winds off the Lake.
Friends gave me good-natured grief but again Trishul and my wife both encouraged my new strategy– to really warm up, maybe I needed to get inside somewhere and into a warm, dry bed. Coincidentally there was a nice Best Western not .3 of a mile over a walking bridge across the expressway from the start/ finish line (getting there by car was another matter– picture a twisty, one-way street -filled 4+ mile tricky drive!) I went to the motel and took one of the most refreshing showers of my life, after which I STILL could only doze off for less than an hour!
Getting back into the fray at lunchtime (start of Day 4), my legs felt like someone had attached a tank of high octane gas to them! I again ran quite a few laps with my friend Danny, who was finally reeling in Rimas (who was a bit sub-par after recent knee surgery but still had the fight of a lion!) Danny and I discussed who had spent more HOURS– yes, hours– adjusting our shoes, me or him.
As novice 6 day runners but experienced 24 hour runners, we just did not get our shoes large enough, or with the right type of cut-out toe boxes, and as runners passed us they could hear our “dogs barking.” I noted that old pros like Dipali (womens leader, charming woman from Australia) and Rimas had several pairs of perfectly adjusted shoes lined up neatly not 2 feet off the running path, while Danny and I scrambled to find exacto-kives and scissors and tape and at some points wore different shoes (sometimes a different brand on each foot!) each mile for 4 miles. Before the race I would not have believed I would end up running in a shoe 1.5 sizes larger than my normal size!
Days 4 and 5 kind of blend in for me, because both nights were cold but somehow I bundled up and ran all night. I loved the floodlit paths with just a few other runners out and about. It was also after 180 miles when for the first time in my life I tried a walk-man in a race (I love music, but also love hearing the sounds around me– the birds and ducks and otters– yes we had quite a few river otters on the course– not to mention my fellow competitors). It is amazing how my pace picked up as I sung along with the Wailers (who I actually met, danced and partied with — pepsi only mind you– and talked soccer with in 1990 when they were in El Paso– good guys) and Third World and “the Doctor of Love,” Barry White. My singing seemed to catch on with the outgoing and animated night-time lap counting crew. At one point I even got them singing “Out In The West Texas Town of El Paso” and “Rock The Boat” with me.
I could not have kept going in this race if not for the encouragement of the Sri Chimnoy Marathon team organizers as well as fellow runners and handlers. Poor Don Allison from ULTRARUNNING– he cheered us loudly the whole race and yet ended up with a more serious injury than any runner as, while cycling the full 3 mile loop ’round the lake, he took a hard spill and wrenched his back and got scraped up. Ultra legend Luis Rios, the former President of one of the greatest USA ultra clubs ever, Prospect Park TC, incurred a serious back ailment on Day 4 and had to walk with an extremely painful (just to watch it was painful!) gait, YET still offered encouragement as well as baseball score updates on each lap. Danny’s wife Pat took me under her wing as if I were a long lost relative, and even went to the store and got me some pop when I needed it. Wasatch Fred Riemer offered amazingly long and eloquently spoken quotations from Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and others as we see-sawed back and forth. Like me, Fred found the nights along the lakeshore to be spiritual and uplifting.
Speaking of soda pop, the drinks (including the best coffee and tea and cocoa I have ever tasted in a race, or in any Starbuck’s or El Paso Cafe for that matter) and FOOD during this whole race were, for me, the best of many fine points about the whole adventure. The charming woman chef from Australia always had a smile and constant fresh and hot meals ’round the clock. The TWO kitchens on the course would be the admiration of the Army (and I teach on a US Army base) for their efficiency and quality and quantity of food available.
I took my last warm nap at the end of Day 5, hoping to “kick it in” by running and walking the whole ast 24 hours. While coming into the race I had no specific goals, I now realized 300 miles was a possibility. While I realize that by the standards of George Littlewood and Edward Payson Weston and the great athletes of the 1800s, as well as Kouros and George Gardiner and Stu Mittleman and Mary Hanudel and Eleanor Robinson and so many talented ultrarunners of the 1980s, 300 miles would be a warm-up jog, we live in a different age. As one of my running heroes Steve Ovett stated a few years ago while commentating for the Olympics telecast, “We cannot live in the past. Maybe I ran a world record mile back in my youth, but that was a LONG time ago.”
I shall post Day 6 notes and after-the-race thoughts later. Right now the present and reality are pulling me by the arm, and my daughter Amalia wants to chase me around the block. I think today Poppa will not be hurdling hedges and fire hydrants as usual, will not be very hard to chase down and tag!
“This was one of the greatest running experiences of my 34 year running career.”
“You’re running and you’re running and you’re running away–
But you can’t run away from yourself–”
–Bob Marley and the Wailers
“Some people want to change the world with silly love songs–
And what’s wrong with that?!”
–Paul McCartney and Wings
“He came from Jamaica and he came from QUEENS,
he came in style in a stretch limousine,
Mr. Reggae Ambassador!”
(songs in my head during the cold rain and loneliness of the last night of the 6 Day)Day 6 of Sri Chimnoy 6 Day:
I had told myself for two days that, barring real injury, I would make a big push in the last 24 hours, only leaving the course for clothing changes or restroom breaks. Only cold, icy rain and wind from about 10PM to 2:30AM slowed me in my effort.
Karnyati Morison, a charming 58-year old woman (and asst RD of one of the best ultras I have ever run– the Ottawa Sri 24 Hour at Terry Fox Stadium) from Ottawa, had told me on the second to last night that “everyone will have trouble sleeping on the last night, and will be out on the course.” Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
As I bundled up at 11PM to battle the icy wind and rain, runners disappeared into their tents and soon there were but 4 of us rounding the lakeshore loop. One of these was my friend Karnyati, who ran as well as anyone in the last 24 hours, seeming to never stop to eat or sleep. Try as I might, she stayed 6-7 miles ahead of me.
Just before 1AM I came flying past the scorers booth (the Wailers were singing “Wait in Vain,” one of my all-time favorite songs) and did not do a good job of checking in with the young women scorers, who looked rather sleepy and called me “Fred” (at several points in the race I was confused with my friend “Wasatch” Fred Riemer, who in reality is more bearded, a bit taller and much better looking than I) For the rest of the race I was convinced a lap had been missed, but in the end this was a moot point.
At 1AM my favorite lapcounting crew arrived, led by assistant RD Sihishnu and two always-smiling and chatty bespectacled gentlemen whose names escape me at present. They seemed to get a kick out of my “announcements” each lap, such as “Now entering the ring– the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world– Muhammed A–li!” or “Now approaching the finish line– your 1980 Boston Marathon Champion– Bill Roooodgers!”
The rains finally subsided by 3AM and my pace picked up accordingly. I reached 300 miles soon after 5AM and only then started to feel the effects of my all-night march. I had suffered from a cold and sore throat since night one of the race, and the throat was now so swollen I could not breathe properly. At 8AM I entered the medical tent for the first time all race, looking for anything to help my throat. I ended up falling alseep for 10 minutes on a massage table (MUCH more comfy and warmer than any cot in the dorm tents) before waking and staggering out for half a lap, only to start shivering and head off to the parking lot and a warm and dry car. Luckily I had the car radio tuned to a loud funk station and my old friends KC & The Sunshine Band pumped me up and back out onto the course (in 28 years of ultras I have yet to tire of “Do A Little Dance– Make A Little Love– Get Down Tonight!”
Finally, with 2 hours to go, I came out of the doldrums and was able to run my fastest miles of the whole race (believe me– in a race this length, a 9:45 mile feels like a sprint!)
I passed 318 miles with a few minutes to spare and kept running hard down the course, even though I knew only full miles were recorded unless someone was going for a record. Time expired as I reached the south turnaround near a large and colorful children’s playground, and for the first time all race I was able to go over and
TRY to climb on one of the large, colorful dinosaurs (remnants of the dinosaur-theme of the 1964-65 World’s Fair that I had enjoyed as a young whippersnapper). My left hamstring had other ideas and I limped off the dinosaur and back to the running path and north to the finish.
I had one of the best massages of my life from a very nice man named Mr. Vajra. I alternately howled in pain AND was tickled till it hurt, but eventually walked out of the medical tent feeling better off than I have after some all-out 25Km and marathon races! My friend Danny Ripka had a bit more trouble staggering out to the awards ceremony, but again had the support (this time literally– one under each arm) of two MAGNIFICENT handlers, his charming wife Pat and good friend Paul.
One of the nicer awards ceremonies I have ever attended featured just the right length and mix of humor and seriousness. I found it touching when Sri Chimnoy himself called each of three young children who had been at the race the whole time (they had parents running) up and handed them nice plush animals (as an arctophile I was impressed by the quality of the brand of teddy!) and toys. I also loved it when Dr. Chimnoy shook hands with my friend Danny (overall winner with 478 miles) and Danny gave him a loud and affectionate thump on the shoulder!
The post-race meal was as gourmet and enjoyable as the wonderful meals served all race. As a Race Director I was more impressed by the quality and quantity of food served, as well as the wonderful curbside service, than any other aspect of the whole 6 days. If the Chefs ever want a mid-winter vacation to sunny El Paso and want a weekend job at a fun race, please contact me!
I managed to drive several other runners and moi back to the Best Western across the street (by foot ti was a 1/4 mile walk, by road a 4 mile roundabout through Queens residential streets). I slept for 12 hours before forcing myself up and throwing all my bays together for a mad dash to LaGuardia Airport.
While in sleep debt and with a steady dull ache in my ankles and feet, I felt better than after many other ultras (probably because I purposely did not push the first few days), and was able to work out 80% of the NY TIMES Sunday crossword on the flight home (showing I still had some mental faculties). I also remembered to bring gifts for Mothers Day home to my best friend/ Coach and wife, Helen.
On Monday I went out and jogged 5 miles around my neighborhood and apart from “dead legs” felt fine at 11-12 minutes a mile. The warm, dry sunshine and 75F weather (the NORMAL May 6-7 high in New York!) loosened up my chest. I plan many complete rest days interspersed with short 3-6 mile runs over the next few weeks, and then will see how things are going. Is it too early to start planning for the 2006 New York Sri Chimnoy 6 Day?!
Tuesday May 10
El Paso, Texas