This is an article reprinted with permission of the author John Morelock as printed in Ultrarunning Magazine, July 2009 ; enjoy !
Yes. Okay. One lap finishes,another begins. The brief moment of wondering if the lap counter saw me, or the person next to me, but not me,vanished as her eyes met mine. My eyes went back to the table full of foods, positioned just past the three-sided tent holding the people with the clipboards. My mind went on to the next lap-almost; first I looked at the cups of warm soup, mindful of the dropping tempetures and rising wind. The next lap would wait for my soup stop. There was plenty of time. I was doing a 24-hour run with about 18 hours to go.
Fixed -time races are often an overlooked category of ultramarathon events. They are held more commonly on smooth, well groomed, and flat surfaces- highly suited to covering as many miles as desired in some given period of time. However, for trail purist, there are time runs in Wyoming, Virginia, British Columbia, Mississippi, Washington, ( and OKLAHOMA ) and just about anywhere else you care to search for them. During the depths of winter there used to be time-events at a variety of indoor facilities- six-lap tracks, eight-lappers, and whatever would fit in some armory in a forgotten part of town.
Time-runs, time-events, track runs, checkpoint runs - no matter what they get called - are great variations for the runner who has not participated in one. The racing is still there, or not there depending on the intent of the day. Many events record splits as the various standard distances are reached so the anally-inclined can have the requisite basket full of numbers at day’s end ( you know, marathon,50-km, 50 miles,100km). Time runs can be dress rehearsals for many other runs. Can I change shoes? How long will it take to change shoes? How long to pause and eat a can of chili? Which shirt, bra, socks, shoes,shorts, and so forth feel good, better, or best after a few hours out there?
For many of us, however, the real gift of time-runs is, ..surprise.., time. As trail running became more popular, many trail ultras became crowded. Entry limits were needed to prevent overuse and abuse of the trails. Time limits came next as the time asked of aide station volunteers became excessive (everyone who does an ultra should do at least one stint on the other side of the table- it is as much a part of the ultras as the running).
At the Pacific Rim One Day, a one-mile loop course gave me a perfect way to practice (test?) the “walk two,run one” idea. At Watershed Park 12 Hour, the 5.375-mile loop gave me a chance to see if I could run with some sort of even effort, knowing I could carefully review the spreadsheet that would arrive attached to the results e-mail a few days later. There was also a side bet since Kathy was running: when would I catch her? Could I run four to her three, five to her four, 57 to her…uh oh, five to her six? During the Banana Belt 12- hour, I started finding constellations as darkness fell and the night sky became my constant companion; no one said the mind had to stay between the lines of a lane on the track. Locked in the comfort of an obstacle-free running surface, my eyes went up with each trip down the straightaways.
During a stop at the aid station, I watched another person come in , look at his watch and tell his crew (a woman with a really thick book in her hand), “ten minutes”, and then plop down in a waiting chair. After he left I asked her about the ten minutes. She said he was practicing getting back out running after various times in the chair. I asked if she would finish the book before he finished the run and we got to talking about how she had to restrict her reading to books that did not require full attention so she would remember that the dinging on her watch was telling her it was time to get ready for his return ( there’s that other side of the table thing again. Do you have any idea what your crew goes thru to support you? )
I left the aid station with a cup of soup in hand, and a hundred yards in which to drink it before getting to a thoughtfully-placed trash bag 50 yards after that to a transition from eating pace to running pace, and another lap would envelope me. Hey John, how’s it going? Hi Linda, How ya’ doin? And a conversation that had paused when I switched from running to walking several laps earlier began again as our varying paces and plans overlapped. Through the day and evening, talks of many subjects started, paused, or continued, only to recede as another iteration of fuzzy logic changed its definitions of fast, slow, and what fits this lap.
What fits? The wind had shifted and the rain was cold now, bits of ice were felt on my face as the forecasted freezing rain had arrived. I was wearing two shirts, a wind vest, and a light rain jacket. What would fit over them? At least I did not have to wonder if I had more clothes with me. At time-runs you usually have easy access to the car, foot-locker, or large pile of stuff on a tarp that you brought with you. You can even climb in your own tent set up at the side of the course. I had lots of stuff - packrat mentality, she calls it - and at the next passing I find another jacket, a hooded one with XL on the tag. Sleet follows as the cold sets in. Runners who had become so familiar all during the day morph into multi-hued Pillsbury representatives, unfamiliar strangers shuffling around the course.
And somewhere, not quite in the background, is a race director who has once again managed to get a park director or high school administrator or some other public entity to agree to the event - as bureaucracies increase in complexity, so too have the race director’s tasks and efforts increased - it’s that ‘”other side of the table” thing again - a special thank you for giving us a place for our time.