On the trail of the Wakka

August 31, 2005

[This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Northwest Runner.]

It’s all Scott McCoubrey’s fault, really.

As of 18 months ago, I hadn’t even heard of the World Cup 100K. Then Scott, a local ultramarathoner and owner of the Seattle Running Company, casually mentions that he’s been named Team Leader for this international ultra thing featuring athletes from over 20 countries, blah blah blah. It sounds kind of cool, but the race distance is 62.1 miles. Who’d want to run that?

“You know, Greg, with your marathon times, you could probably make the US team if you want to,” Scott says teasingly. “All you have to do is run seven-minute miles for seven hours.”

Although the thought of running for seven hours — at any pace — does not immediately set my heart on fire, I am looking for a new competitive challenge, having recently suffered through some mediocre marathons. Furthermore, my running has always followed a predictable pattern: the longer the race, the better I do. Does this trend hold up for distances longer than a marathon? If the race is long enough, might I turn out to be, like, world-class or something? Perhaps it’s time to find out.

In talking to Scott and other veteran ultra runners, I learn that a common ultra training strategy is to do weekend “doubles,” i.e., a long run on Saturday and another long run on Sunday. The basic idea is to practice running while depleted without subjecting the body to excessive mileage on any single day. This seems logical enough, so I try it a couple times, running about 25 miles on Saturday and another 21 or so on Sunday. Since refueling is also a concern, I do some of these runs around the loop trail at Discovery Park and the inner loop at Green Lake so that in each case I have an “aid station” (my car) every 2.8 miles.

As I do these long runs, I experiment a bit with different hydration and nutrition strategies. Ultimately, I decide to keep things as simple as possible: I’ll take water and electrolyte pills to compensate for sweating, and I’ll eat energy gels (Clif Shots or Gu) to give my muscles some much-needed glucose. I also think about whether I should run continuously or take periodic walking breaks. I’ve previously been contemptuous of the run/walk marathon strategy popularized by Jeff Galloway, thinking that this low-impact approach is for people who aren’t fit enough to run the whole way. However, in pondering the toll that 62.1 miles of running might take on my legs, I concede that short walks here and there won’t hurt. I therefore slow to a walk whenever I’m drinking water, which also helps prevent me from choking on the water.

Displaying the naïve optimism of someone who has never done a 100K before, I decide after a few long runs that I’m ready to qualify for the US World Cup team. I set my sights on the Silver Comet 100K, to be held outside of Atlanta on February 19th. Since several other Americans have already posted times in the 7:30-7:40 range at other races, I will have to run at least that fast to be considered for the team.

At Silver Comet, the course is flat and the weather is perfect. I run solidly for the first half, but at 58K, I simultaneously realize that (1) my quads are kind of shot and (2) I still have exactly one full marathon to go. With little else to think about, I spend the next three hours wondering whether my all-but-dead legs will give out before the finish and negate all my effort up to that point. Fortunately, the legs keep moving and I complete the race in 7:27. I have my qualifying time; I’m a national team member!

Wanting my next 100K to be less traumatic than the previous one, I decide to make my individual long runs longer. I do a 36-miler one Saturday, then a 42-miler two weeks later, then a 38-miler two weeks after that. I do all of these runs on pavement, the predominant surface of the World Cup race. The 42-miler — 15 laps around Green Lake — is actually quite fun, as it coincides with my birthday and numerous friends take turns running laps with me. In between these long runs, I mostly do easy 5-mile recovery runs, also fitting in at least one speed or tempo workout per week. To make sure I’m getting enough rest, I go to bed early and sleep without an alarm clock, logging nine or ten hours of sleep per night.

On June 16th, my wife and I leave for Japan. We meet up with friends in Kyoto and Tokyo and do some sightseeing for a few days before heading north to join the rest of the US team on the northern island of Hokkaido. On Friday the 24th, the team tours the course by van; on Saturday, we march in a short parade, handing out little American flags to local townspeople. Meanwhile, team leaders Lin Gentling and Tim Yanacheck and team physician Lion Caldwell try to resolve various logistical questions. Exactly where along the course will we be permitted to leave personal drinks? Will the course be open to automobiles? Is there any pasta in this town?

Many team members already know each other from previous World Cup trips; I don’t really know anyone other than Nikki Kimball, with whom I attended both Rutland Junior High School (in Vermont) and Williams College (in Massachusetts). As I meet the men, I can’t help but notice that I outweigh them all by at least 15-20 pounds. However, I’m pleased that some of them seem just as geeky as me. Mark Werner turns out to be a mathematics professor at the American University in Cairo, and when I loan him the statistics-themed book Freakonomics, he devours it in a single day. Scott Creel is an ecology professor at Montana State University; he does fieldwork on predator-prey interactions between wolves and elk, which he explains during one of our final pre-race jogs. If academic credentials count for anything in this race, we’ve definitely got a leg up on the field.

On Sunday, June 26th, a 2 AM wake-up call rouses me from a variation on a classic runner’s dream. I am late to the start of the race; however, I am unworried because I have 100K in which to catch up! OK, time for an early breakfast. Our hotel’s menu during the week has emphasized seafood above all else, but we gravitate toward the rice and rolls. Last-minute advice is offered: the other countries always go out too fast and drink too little, so don’t imitate them! I myself plan to drink plenty of water, having recently trained my bladder to hold large quantities of it by urinating as infrequently as possible.

At 5 AM, we begin our trek around the perimeter of Lake Saroma (which technically is not a lake but an inlet of the Sea of Okhostk). Behind the brisk early pace set by Howard Nippert, Patrick Russell, and Scott, I settle into a mini-pack with Mark, and we swap silly comments during the easy early miles. At one point, Mark points out a sign for an ATM, wondering aloud if the sign is intended for runners. I respond, “What we really need right now is an ATM for ATP,” referring to adenosine triphosphate, the high-energy molecule used to power muscle contraction and other cellular processes.

Mark and I hit the 25K mark in 1:44, on pace to finish well under my goal time of 7:10. We yo-yo back and forth for a while; he passes me when I walk at aid stations, then I catch up and move ahead of him between stations. Between 30K and 40K, I feel very strong, leaving Mark behind and passing a bunch of other people, including a couple of Italians. Are the defending team champs having an off-day?

I reach 50K in 3:28, which is good, but I have lost my initial friskiness and am beginning the longest hill on the course, a very gradual 40-meter gain in elevation over 12K. Also, the temperature is now in the 70s. I tell myself to stay as relaxed as possible on the hill even if it means slowing down somewhat. I succeed in this respect, but when the hill ends, my splits do not improve. By 70K, the splits are sufficiently disheartening that I stop checking them. My legs are not in pain (yet); they just don’t want to run any more! I’m now mostly running alone without passing people or being passed, meaning that the rest of the field is slowing down at about the same rate as me.

At 80K, as the American support crew dabs at my back with water-soaked sponges, Lion tells me that Scott is just 2.5 minutes ahead of me. “We’re having a great race! It’s us and Germany going for the bronze medal!” he yells. Briefly re-energized, I soon pass Scott and become our team’s third scorer. (Each team’s top three times are added together to yield a team time, which is then used to rank the teams.) By 85K, though, I’m struggling more than ever. My quads have progressed beyond fatigue into a state of genuine pain, and I feel massive blisters forming on the balls of both feet.

From 80K to 98K, the mostly point-to-point course offers us an out-and-back trip through a wildflower park — a chance to see how the race is developing in front of us and behind us. The 89K turnaround point is referred to on the course map as the “Turning Point of the Wakka”; since our team doesn’t know what a Wakka is, we’ve arbitrarily defined it as a large, hairy Sasquatch-like creature who roams the area and jumps on the backs of tired runners. Howard is the first among us to make it past the Wakka, giving me a hearty “Attaboy!” as he returns. After I see Patrick and then make the turn myself, I swear that I can hear the beast’s footsteps approaching from behind…. Oops, it’s a German. He passes me without fanfare and slowly disappears into the distance. I can sense the bronze medal slipping away.

As I trudge onward, Anne Riddle Lundblad appears, closing in on the turnaround. She has moved all the way up to 2nd or 3rd! Meanwhile, I have 8K to go; if I finish in less than 39 minutes, I can break 7:20. My next 1K split is 5 minutes — argh, too slow! The split after that is also too slow. I again stop looking at my watch. Here come Nikki and Tania Pacev, still passing people. Mark is struggling. Ann Heaslett, Anthea Schmid, and Karen Scott are hanging in there.

My left knee is no longer bending as much as it should, presumably due to hamstring fatigue. Please don’t cramp, I beg my hams. Please, please, PLEASE don’t cramp. 2K to go now. I still can’t accelerate, but at least I’m not cramping. 1K left. Kick, legs, kick! I finish in 20th place with a time of 7:20. I stagger over to the grassy area where our team’s bags are, put on all my extra clothes, curl up into a fetal position, and lie motionless for about an hour.

As I rest, the women complete a remarkable come-from-behind team triumph over France and Japan, with Anne 2nd (7:54), Nikki 7th (8:22), and Tania 9th (8:29). Led by Howard (8th, 6:59) and Patrick (16th, 7:14), the men have placed 4th, about 10 minutes behind Germany — our best finish in five years.

We attend the awards ceremony and cheer for our women, along with the victorious Japanese men’s team and individual winners Gregory Murzin of Russia (6:24) and Hiroku Syou of Japan (7:53). Back at the hotel, we hold an impromptu race poster signing party (Mark writes on mine, “Good luck withdrawing from the ATP ATM”), and Howard phones in the good news to USA Track & Field. The cheesy elevator music playing throughout the hotel, which has annoyed me all week, now seems soothing and appropriate. We head to bed early and take a shuttle out of town the next morning. I leave Japan with a stunning collection of blisters, a renewed respect for the 100K distance, a sincere admiration for my teammates, and no regrets — a few ideas for next year, maybe, but no regrets.

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