The 4MPH Challenge, 29 March 2014 - Race Report
The rules of the Whiskeytown 4MPH Challenge are simple. The course is a 6-mile loop, and you have 90 minutes to complete it. Go out, run as fast or as slow as you want, so long as you make it back before the time-limit. At the end of the 90 minutes, the race starts again. Keep running until you can no longer keep up. The last competitor running wins.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. It’s only 4 MPH – a 15-minute per mile pace. How hard could it be?
Oh, you fool. You stupid, arrogant fool.
The inspiration for this race, appropriately enough, was Stephen King’s The Long Walk, wherein 100 boys are forced by a dystopian government to compete in a 4-MPH footrace. The boys have to maintain a pace faster than 4 MPH, or they’re shot dead. Last boy alive and running (or walking, or crawling) faster than 4 MPH wins, and gets to keep his life. No wonder this race felt like a real-life Hunger Game…
With this in mind, I set out for Whiskeytown (near Lake Shasta in Northern California) with Harrison, who had volunteered to be my awesome pit crew captain. Driving up I-5 felt not unlike driving towards the apocalypse; the Central Valley was sun-kissed and verdant, but up North the clouds swirled heavy with malice. The forecast predicted rain, but this looked like tornado weather.
By the time we got to the race/camp site, the heavens had opened up in earnest. Everything was soaking wet and dark. We quickly set up the tent, prayed that it would stay dry (it did!), and ducked under a fellow runner’s E-Z Up canopy to boil water for dinner. Upon returning to the tent I fell asleep quickly, lulled to sleep by the steady, heavy pat-pat-pat of the rain on the fly.
When I awoke on race day, the morning was silent. No drips tapping on the rain fly. No rain! With a smile on my face I laced up, swilled some tea, and thanked the Race Gods for the improved weather. The thirty or so runners in the Unlimited Distance category gathered around the starting line at 7AM and, sure as sunrise, the race began without further ceremony.
The loop covers 6 miles of rolling trails with a few tougher climbs, and a handful of creek crossings. On a normal day, the course isn’t terribly technical – a little loose scree to slip on, a few knotted tree roots to trip you up, a couple cool creeks to splash through. However, as we started out on the trails, it was immediately apparent that today was not going to be a normal day.
The whopping five inches of rain that Whiskeytown received during the night had pooled insidiously on the single-track trails, turning what was supposed to be the easy, flat, fast half of the course into a slow and soggy waterway, ankle-to-shin-deep. To make matters worse, the topography of the trails made it such that there was no dry trail margin to run on, and the water couldn’t drain. Well, I guess it’s time to get wet, I thought, resigned, as I splashed into the first of many miles-long puddles. (To get an idea of what this looked like, check out this video posted by one spectator. You can see me splashing by around the 1:05-mark, and last year’s winner Aaron Sorenson paddling his invisible kayak through the waters.) I’ll admit that (at this early hour in the race) I was thoroughly enjoyed traipsing along the trail, relishing the feel of mud and grit in my shoes. I flowed with the trails.
I was clocking in a bit too hot though, finishing the first three or four laps in first place (not a smart thing to do for this kind of race, if you want to win it). I had reckoned that finishing with about 30 minutes of rest between each lap would afford me some time to stretch, eat, drink, and relax. What I found, instead, was that the 30 minutes between each lap afforded me extra time to shiver in the cold, worry about not urinating enough, feel my muscles tighten in inactivity, and – worst of all – see how comfortable and happy all of the done runners, spectators, and volunteers were hanging out at the campsite. It made going out for another lap an impossibly painful decision.
Between laps, Harrison helped me with gear changes, nutrition, hydration, and general moral support. (Though he even went out and ran 18 miles of the course, and finished in 3rd place for the men’s 18-Mile Limited Group! All of this despite him not intending on running the race until that morning.)
After those first 24 miles, I decided to cool my jets a bit and slow down the pace. I noticed that the veterans and the guys with the real sticking power in the race were finishing in the 75-to-80-minute range, and decided that was the best strategy. I clocked in a few 65-minute loops, then a few more in 70 minutes.
Around lap 6 (mile 36) I was feeling mental and emotional exhaustion in earnest. The hundreds of cumulative micro-choices that every trail runner faces during a race – when to hike and when to run, what to eat, how much to drink, which path on the trail to follow, how fast to pace – had me in a state of decision fatigue. I was just too tired to make decisions. At one point as I was hiking slowly up a particularly steep climb, I tripped on a root, stumbled quickly, and just like that my feet were running again. It would have taken more effort to make the decision to return to hiking than to simply keep running; so I ran.
At the end of lap 8 (mile 48), Mark announced that we’d have to bring our headlamps out, as the sun was starting to set behind the hills and trees. I assessed my knees, which since lap 3 had been troubling me (as they tend to do when I’m undertrained and overexerted). I knew I could get at least one more lap out of them, and I was curious what the course was like after dark. So I set out for lap 9, equipped with my headlamp.
Hallucinations are not uncommon at this point in a race. The darkling sky, the exhaustion, and the paranoia that come with racing had me visiting some dark and weird places psychologically. I felt my kneecap turn to jelly and drip warmly down my calf. Every tree-stump or free-standing shrub became a bear or a person, standing there in the dark. Was that lightning?
I returned from lap 9 (mile 54) in 75 minutes, and in the 15 minutes leading up to lap 10, I vacillated between intending to go out again and calling it quits. Ultimately, my brain couldn’t make the decision, so I let my aches, cuts, bruises, and rashes decide. I was done.
I was done! Quitting has never felt so good – I sat, warmed myself by the fire, changed out of my sopping muddy gear, got some medical attention, ate, drank, and finally fell asleep.
Late into the night (when I was surely sleeping), youngster Adam Zufall and reigning champ Aaron Sorenson kept running until mile 66, well before Aaron’s previous record of 90 miles (I think this is testament to how much more strenuous the course conditions were this year). Chuck Walen and Jeremy Johnson were both running through lap 12 (Chuck’s face covered in blood from a nighttime tumble), but only Jeremy made it back from lap 13 (and 78 miles) before the 90-minute limit, winning him the race.
I ran a total of 54 miles (9 laps) over the course of 13.5 hours.
So, what does it feel like to run this kind of race? The winner from this year, Jeremy Johnson, has the answer for you in his fantastic race report. An excerpt:
Imagine you just bought a bunch of groceries and loaded up your car and then got ready to drive home but then discovered you left your keys at home. You then decide to walk six miles back to home to get your keys. You step out of your car and immediately submerge your foot in a shin high puddle that extends 50 ft to the curb. Well, the feet are already wet, so you just hoof it over to the curb. You then continue to walk along the sidewalks with your squishy shoes and cold feet and periodically encounter another impassible puddle with varying depths of ankle to shin high cold, dirty water and you grudgingly trudge through. At some point you realize you are being followed. You look back and see a man with a black cloak and a scythe. You try and see his face but there is only darkness under the hood. This alarms you and you decide to pick up your pace to put some distance between you and the scary man. Strangely this man is moving at exactly 4 mph. So you decide you have to run.
As always, a big thank-you to Race Director Mark Swanson for organizing such a unique, fun, and challenging event, and also to the many volunteers who made it possible. I would be remiss to fail to mention the EMT, Noel, who bandaged me up beautifully in her horse trailer after I had called it quits.
Call me a masochist, but I will absolutely be signing up for the 4MPH Challenge next year. Hopefully the new course will attract an even larger field of runners, and I’ll do whatever is the opposite of a rain-dance the week prior to keep away the wet weather.
Up next is Inside Trail Racing’s Woodside Ramble 50K, if my knees are feeling up to it by then.