Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dream Big - South Carolina 24 Hour

Start of the South Carolina 24 Ultra

The Spouse
This is probably your first visit to this blog, so let me introduce myself as Shannon Johnstone's husband. That is how I'll be known from now on. 

It wasn't always that way. Years ago I was the popular one, with a blog that had literally dozens of followers. Shannon and I ran a crazy amount of races together, from 5ks to Marathons, sometimes two a weekend. Neither of us were exceptional runners. We would often win our age group, but were pretty average even within our local running club Carolina Godiva, and never posted a performance worth noting.

I was always a little faster than Shannon, and finished ahead of her in our first 92 races together. 
But it was our first ultra-marathon, the Frosty 50k, where we discovered she had a hidden talent. The further she went, the stronger she got. It took every fiber of my being to keep up with her at the end of that race.

This led us to try more ultras, but I was not cut out for them. The Uwharrie 40 miler left me in ruins. Shannon, on the other hand, ended up winning it in 2011. She went on to run the Umstead 100 in 21:48, becoming a true ultrarunner. 

Our friend Dennis put crazy ideas in Shannon's head.

Big Dreams
While running a 100 miles in a day is beyond the comprehension of your average runner, in elite ultra circles it is merely a good training run. On a national scale, Shannon's 100 mile time of 21:48 is fairly pedestrian.

Still, she had big ambitions which she mostly kept to herself because they seemed so outrageous. Her heroes were Annette Bednosky, Jill Perry and Connie Gardner. She dreamed of being a part of Ultra Team USA.
A friend of ours had just gone to the World Triathlon Championships as part of the national tri team, and he talked about the little USA shorts with his name on them. Shannon was starry-eyed.

Living legend Ray Krolewicz (Coach Ray K.) gives last minute instructions
So she scrutinized the current qualifiers for the Women's National 24 Hour Team.
When she saw that the two open spots were currently held by relatively low performances (122.5 and 124 miles), she started scheming and looking for 24 hour races. If she could run 100 miles, what's another 22.5? It was early February when she heard of Ray Krolewicz's last chance South Carolina 24 hour qualifier. She jumped at. 

I thought she was crazy. The race was 5 only weeks away. She hadn't been putting in any kind of training for a 24 hour race, let alone one on a track, and she thought she was going to qualify for a national team? She had only run 127 miles in the entire month of January, and she was going to run 123 in a day? It seemed ridiculous to me. 

A ton of experience and talent
Photo: Ray Krolewicz
A Plan
But I should have known not to doubt her yet again.
Immediately after hearing about the race she jumped on the treadmill and ran a 50k on it. Seriously, five hours on a treadmill. A good test in tedium.

Then she wanted to talk strategy. I am a big believer in even pacing (only theoretically, I am not smart enough to put it in practice). Running 122.5 miles in 24 hours requires an 11:45 pace, but she felt more comfortable running an 8:00 to 9:00 min mile. So I suggested running 4 loops and then walking 1, to average the 5.1 miles an hour. 

The next week she went to the track and ran another 50k there, practicing the "run 4/walk 1" ratio. It was an abnormally warm 75 degree day, and she learned how important the walk breaks could be. 
After this, she came up with her plan:
  • Run the first 50 miles in 10 hours, with her 4/1 ratio.
  • When the sun sets (when she feels her best) start skipping walk breaks and run the next 50 faster.
  • Have plenty of time left for the last 22.5

Ray-K does things old school, like this race program.
The women's competition was impressive
Photo: -Harvey Lewis
When race day came, Shannon had lost her hopes of making the team. There were nine other women there vying for a spot, almost all of them with far more impressive resumes. Eight of them had gone over 100 miles before, and one had just placed 2nd in the national 50k championship. 

So instead Shannon was just hoping to run the entire 24 hours. If she made the 120 mile qualifying mark, that would be "icing on the cake". 

Of everything Shannon did that day, it was the way she started that I was most proud of her for.
Of the 9 men and 10 women, she was the only one who took walk breaks right from the start.
Despite being lapped over and over, she stuck to her 4/1 plan. 

Photo: Ray Krolewicz

At the 3 hour mark, Shannon was DFL (dead fucking last).
She had been lapped by the lead women 18 times, and was almost 5 miles behind them. But she was happy and feeling good.

I sat at the card table I had set up, surrounded by 300 pounds of stuff we had carted from home. Most of it assorted types of candy. Occasionally I would refill her bottles with gatorade or water.

I talked with Tim who was set up next to us. He was crewing for his wife, Carilyn Johnson, a four time member of the 24 hour team, hoping to make her 5th. We commiserated with each other, being the slouch husbands to ultra runner wives. Shannon didn't need much help, so I went out a 3 mile run, which was enough to exhaust me.

The GPS track. Round and round they go

All smiles the first few hours
Photo: Ray Krolewicz

Photo: Ray Krolewicz
Getting Hot
By 3pm it was getting hot. It was about 73 degrees, very low humidity, and a nice breeze.
This sounds pleasant, but the sun was scorching. I kept slathering on sunscreen but still it felt like my skin was being microwaved.

Adding to the temperature was the black track absorbing and radiating heat.
The runners could not tell how much they were sweating, because the dry wind evaporated it instantly. But the heat started to take it's toll. Joe Fejes set up a bucket of ice water for people to dunk their shirts in.

A few runners started getting sick, possibly from being dehydrated. But the leaders kept their pace up through the afternoon.

Elites Carilyn Johnson and Katalin Nagy lead the way
Photo: Ray Krolewicz

Photo: Ray Krolewicz
Even though she was pacing herself and taking walk breaks, the sun almost defeated Shannon.
"I can't do this"
She plopped down in the chair.
"I'm not cut out for this. I feel awful, I just want to go home. I don't want to do this anymore. This isn't for me."
Being a huge wimp myself, I am not good helping others through adversity. In fact, in the Croatan 24 hour race I talked her into dropping out. But I had promised to be more positive this time.

"I am sure you feel awful. It is really hot out and you don't handle heat well. But if you want to drop out, you can... but first just walk 8 laps. If you walk 8 laps and still feel bad, then we can go home."

I gave her a big cotton shirt and doused it with water, and had her wear her big floppy sun hat. She looked kind of silly, but it was what she needed.

Shannon in her "Badwater gear"
Photo: Ray Krolewicz

Shannon managed to recover from the hot afternoon, but others were not as lucky. Six of the other women fell off their pace due to illness or cramps. 
Shannon hit her 50 miles in 9:37. 
By hour 12, she had 62 miles and had moved up into 4th place. She had paced herself well and stuck to her plan.
The 3 lead women were running very strong and Shannon was far behind.

Halfway point
Photo: Ray Krolewicz
Shannon had booked me a hotel room for the night. I think she worried I would get tired and try to talk her into dropping out. So around 10pm, I left and had a guilty nights sleep.

She had planned on picking up the pace at night, but it didn't work out that way. 
Around 1 am (15 hours in) she hit another low point, and sat down for 15 minutes, feeling defeated. 
Ray K came by and asked if she wanted to nap in his car. 

The timers were kids from Wilson High school and their parents.
The stayed awake all night manually recording every lap of each run.
Photo: Ray Krolewicz

Photo: Ray Krolewicz

Luckily Mark Mantz was there to make coffee and do the math for her. She had 9 hours left and 45 miles to reach her 120 mile goal. "That's only 12 min miles. You can do that!". 

Shannon hit 100 miles in 19:46. But she was slowing down, having run the second 50 in 10:05. 

Photo: Ray Krolewicz

After my good nights sleep, I awoke feeling a little sore from my 3 miles the day before. I got back to the track by 6am and caught a glimpse of Shannon still running as I pulled up. I couldn't believe it.

The track looked much different than when I left. A few of the runners were gone. Many were sitting or walking very slowly. A few that had struggled during the day had recovered and were back running strong in the morning.

Photo: Ray Krolewicz
 A Chance
After 21 hours, Shannon was now in second place. 
In first was Katalin Nagy, who had just broke the 200k American record in 20:01. With that performance, Katalin secured her #5 spot on the team. 

Still up for grabs was the last spot, and Shannon now had a chance at it. If she could make it past 122.5 miles, she could possibly make her dream of Team USA come true.

But... she had run 106 miles in 21 hours, which is a 11:54 pace. 
Another 17 miles in the last 3 hours would be a 10:49 pace. 

So she would have to pick up the pace and run the last 17 miles  faster than the previous 106. It seemed implausible to say the least.

Honor Bonds (left) counted all of Shannon's 495 laps for the entire 24 hours.
Photo: Ray Krolewicz
And she was struggling. Her face was scrunched up in a scowl. Her running stride was now very short and stiff. She could only take sips of ginger ale, and could not eat anything.

"I need to sit down for a second", she said as she came by. I knew this would be a mistake.
"NO! Do not sit down. Do not stop. Do not walk."
She was running about a 10:30 pace, so she had absolutely no time to spare. She had to run continuously the entire last 3 hours in order to make it.

She would run by and shake her head and whisper "I can't do this".
"This is what you were dreaming of. This moment. You can do it."

I counted down the laps. 67...30...10...6...4...3..2...
"Just two more laps, than you can stop!," I shouted, "hold on! Just two more!"
But then Ray shook his head, "Two more to what? That only gets her 122.5, but she has to keep going. There are 3 other 24 hour races going on. She has to go as far as she can."

Somehow she managed to run past 122.5 for another 2 laps for 123.1 miles. When the 24 hours were up she just laid down in the grass.

Megan Stegemiller ran with Shannon the last few hours and got her through

Step It Up
We won't know if she actually made the team until next week when they announce it. Maybe they will chose someone else. 
And even if she does make the team there may not even be a World Championship to go to because the one scheduled for Pilzen, Czech Republic has been cancelled.
But she dreamed big and actually achieved it. Witnessing it has made me a little less cynical. 

However, amazing as her run was, she now has new standards to live up to. She got this Facebook message from Joe Fejes:
Congratulations Mary Shannon Johnstone for the effort you put out this weekend in nailing down the last spot on the USA team. It was a thrill to watch you accomplish an opportunity of a lifetime. 
Words of wisdom--be prepared to step up and contribute as a scorer at the World Championship...
Yeah, Shannon. Only 123 miles? Time to step up!

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