Why We Run: A Natural History - Bernd Heinrich (2002)

Chapter 19. Final Preparations

God has given me the ability. The rest is up to me. Believe. Believe. Believe.

—BILLY MILLS, an Oglala Sioux from South Dakota, in a training diary
entry prior to his surprise upset 10-km victory in the Tokyo Olympics, when he also
set a personal best for the distance by 46 seconds.

To finish the 100-kilometer in 6.5 hours, near what I hoped to do, would mean holding an average pace of 6:17 minutes per mile for the whole 62 miles. The magnitude of that task seemed just shy of intimidating. On the other hand, I thought I could do it, and I did not want the 1,350 training miles, starting from 10 miles per week after the knee operation, to over 130 miles per week during the last five weeks, to be a wasted effort. I would not be racing again next weekend, possibly ever. Only quality mattered, and to do it once and do it right, little could now be left to chance. There was no room for error. To intend not to make any error was not enough. It was a matter of will, to make sure that every damn thing that could go wrong didn’t, and that everything that could go right did.

I had already gambled on the training regimen, the intended carbo/liquid intake during the race, and now I made one more gamble: I decided to submit to the stressful carbo-depletion and carbo-loading regime. The theory behind it is that if the liver and muscles are totally depleted of glycogen, then they will overcompensate and take up more than they normally hold when given an abundance of dietary carbohydrate. It is like gorging after a fast, nature’s way of making up for previous deprivation.

The carbo-depletion regimen is risky, because it makes you vulnerable to the flu and other infections. Although I could have an excellent run even without the tiny potential boost of a few more calories of glycogen in my muscles and liver at the start of the race, that tiny amount also might make all the difference. I had to believe.

There was another reason I risked going through the carbo-depletion, carbo-loading regime. I decided to deplete my carbohydrates not only by exercise, but also by switching over to a strict diet of fats with a little protein. I hoped thereby to give an additional boost to my fat-burning machinery.

Burning the fats from adipose or skin deposits depends on adipose triglyceride lipase, an enzyme that is hormone activated. To activate it from the inactive, ‘b’ to the active, ‘a’ form requires adrenaline, glucagon, and noradrenaline, together with a drop of insulin in the blood. Training, starvation, and diet can all double or triple lipase activity, and in addition I could expect the excitement of the race to be highly relevant for my hormonal profile as well. The increased lipase activity from adrenaline release would result in reductions of glucose utilization, to extend the glycogen reserves and to postpone fatigue.

Not all ultrarunners believe in carbo depletion. When asked what diet he used on a 50-mile race, ultrarunner Jim Pearson said, “I once got beat by a guy eating a peanut butter sandwich, and he wore a T-shirt that said on the back, ‘I’d rather eat worms than deplete.’” After I’d eaten little but butter, peanut butter, and cheese and fatty meat for a couple of days, I felt nauseated, half wondering if maybe eating worms might not be preferable after all. (Nor would I recommend what I did, in retrospect. The next two times I tried it I got a flu and had to spend days in bed just before the race and consequently ran very poorly.)

According to my running log I “ate well” on the night of September 28, after that day having set a training record of 1:53 over my 20-mile course. I felt strong to the end and “could probably have carried the pace for 15 to 20 more miles.” Since my pace averaged 5:39 per mile, I felt that with race adrenaline, I could potentially be within range of my intended 6:17 per mile race pace for the full 100 kilometers, a distance more than twice I’d ever run before. But there was no way of knowing if I could hang on after entering the unknown territory past about 30 miles. I had put on the pressure in running this particular 20-mile run to speed up the glycogen depletion process, which I hoped to accomplish fully the next day, September 29, six days before the race.

The final depletion run on September 29 was indeed scary. I ate nothing but cheese and peanut butter for breakfast, and then set out to run my 20-mile training loop twice without even stopping, except to drink water at the halfway point. I started at a leisurely 7:00 per mile pace. At 25 miles I was “getting weak” and at 34 miles I still thought I could make it “with guts.” But at 35 miles I wobbled badly and then had to walk. This was it. I’d bonked.

It doesn’t take too many bonkings before vapors of doubt threaten to suffuse the brain and anesthetize the will. After all, my goal was not just to survive the distance, nor to jog it. It was to run the whole way, and the only thing that really mattered was speed. However, I’d been here before. It had happened again and again, week after week, that I would run a small fraction of the total race distance in training and reach a state of exhaustion where I came to a crawl. Those times were difficult, because the physical feeling of exhaustion came with the mental realization that, at that point, running 5–10 more miles would be quite impossible, and race distance might be well over 30 miles longer. At times like that there came the temptation to give up, to tell yourself it’s impossible. But somehow you keep going, mostly thinking you’ll do all you can do, and leave the rest to fate, hoping for improvement by race time. This time, though, there was a slight mental compensation to the exhaustion. I’d wanted to deplete, and now I knew that I really had achieved that state. In retrospect I would not do it again this way. The current lore, based on much scientific study, is most recently explained by Ed Eyestone in the August 2000 issue of Runner’s World. Rather than increased mileage with less than a week to go as I had done, there should be a tapering, or gradual reduction, of mileage of about 20 percent per week during the three weeks before the race, with “the length of the taper depending on the length of the race you’re preparing to win.” I’d obviously not read the instructions.

I maintained the fat diet for only one more day, and on the morning of October 1, after a 9-mile run, by now presumably fueled only on fat, I felt “pretty good.” That was encouraging. I was getting over my fat nausea. I then allowed myself to gobble bread, spaghetti, cookies, cereal, starting at breakfast, to carbo-load liver and muscles.

There were now only two more days with nothing to do but eat till the race. But should I stop running entirely? Up to this day I’d told my body it must always run. I did not want to shock it with inactivity, or permit it to forget running. I had no way of knowing, but my hunch was that an ultraendurance predator that runs to depletion in order to catch a huge feast would have cycles of energy expenditure with sharp switch-overs of energy conservation once the chase ends. Since for me the chase had not yet ended, I still jogged lightly twice per day, even on the evening before the race, holding myself to a very slow pace and doing only 2 to 3 miles at a time; I hoped to conserve my preciously accumulated carbohydrate fuel. Finally, I felt intense relief—there was nothing more to do. I thought I had done everything possible.

Curiously, throughout the last three months I had an image of myself as being too hefty. However, my log for October 1 says that before the 9-mile run, my weight was 142 pounds. (It went up at least 5 pounds after the carbo loading.) This was the lowest my weight had been in all of my running career, including high school. It had also been my only carbo depletion.

I mention my low weight because it contrasts profoundly with the mental image I had of myself. A year later I saw photographs taken at the time and I could not believe they were of me. I “knew” I was not that lean. I was absolutely convinced that the photographer had used a trick lens. I also had a negative opinion of my running ability, always feeling I run much too slowly and not far enough.

Margaret, my wife at that time, and I flew to Chicago the day before the race and we settled into our hotel near the starting point of the race by the Lake Michigan shoreline. I went out for a short jog to find the starting line in the evening so I could find it easily the next dawn.

The race organizers had scheduled a prerace gathering. Presuming there would be speeches by dignitaries and name athletes, I did not attend. It would have cost me adrenaline, and I’d need to conserve it all for the race the next morning. I had no idea who was there, but I learned later that at the pre-race seminar Don Paul from San Francisco had predicted “an exciting race”; Klecker had returned, presumably for a shot at the 100-kilometer record. There was also to be a carbo-loading dinner, but it was scheduled too late. The race would start at 7 A.M. and I wanted the bulk of my big carbo meals (lots of spaghetti I’d brought along, already cooked, in a jar, and yeast rolls) already voided by 6 A.M. I needed to avoid the necessity of running for 62 miles with a full colon, and any stop along the way might undo everything; I had timed my bowels and I knew that I needed to have supper finished before 5 P.M.

If one wake-up system failed, I had a backup or else I would not have slept. The arranged hotel wake-up call came shortly after my alarm clock rang. I got up early to have a couple of hours to digest my breakfast of yeast rolls, and to drink the coffee we’d brought in a thermos. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and brought our travel bag with us to the starting line, ready to fly home right afterward; I needed to get back quickly, to get back to my work.

I was wearing my Nike Mariah running shoes. I had chosen these narrow shoes because of their light weight. To reduce weight further, I did not wear socks. Socks absorb sweat, adding more weight. I had cut small ventilation holes into the shoes with a razor blade. It does not take much to turn one’s feet to hamburger when they pound the pavement without interruption for six to seven hours. Without socks, even the smallest stitch that protrudes on the inside of a shoe will do it to you. I had toughened my feet by running many training miles in these same shoes while not wearing socks, so I hoped to suffer minimal damage. My shorts had also been road tested, but just to be sure, I rubbed Vaseline onto the inside of my thighs. Sweat with constant friction can result in distracting rawness, possibly involuntarily affecting stride.

It was still dark when we got to the starting line. It was almost deserted, but then I saw several other runners jogging in the shadows on the dark raised sidewalk, against which the lake splashed in the dawn breeze. Had I really come to the right place? Soon enough more people started to arrive. Like me, they all had their private dreams. They had prepared long and hard, and they had come from all over the United States and Canada to put their dreams to the test—be it to finish the distance, to run a personal best, to win, to show, or to set a record.

Jack Canney, my handler, met me near the start with a crate of cranberry juice. I gave him my plastic squeeze bottle and instructed him to fill it and have it ready at designated spots along the 10-mile back-and-forth loop, so I could get a drink at least every 5 miles. I’d drink as fast as I could on the run and drop the bottle; he’d then retrieve it for the next tank-up. We practiced a few handoffs running at anticipated race pace.

By 6:50 A.M. there was a huge and growing crowd that would swell to 261 starters. As reckoning time approached, a few runners still did warm-up strides on the sidewalk in front and in back of the thin white line drawn across the pavement. Then as they clumped behind the line, they stretched or jogged up and down in place. The sun had come over the horizon. There was a brisk wind. We shivered slightly in the cool morning breeze.

I debated whether to keep on my tattered dark blue cotton sweatpants and sweatshirt, and decided in the last seconds to strip off the pants despite the cold, because it would take seconds off my time to do it later. The shirt could be flung off at any time without losing stride.

We packed up ever-closer behind the white line. The antelopes, world record holder Klecker, Paul, and the other fast ultrarunners, lined up directly in back of that line. The tips of their running shoes practically touched it. I, a complete unknown in this crowd, hung back a little behind them, but I squeezed in well toward the front. I became strangely calm now, perhaps relieved. I had finally arrived at the start. It would all be over in just a few hours.

This experiment of one will be, in the parlance of science, an anecdote. Nevertheless, it is still an experiment, not just a random happening. It is an experiment because I’ve been guided by logic derived from a vast body of experimental work on animals, and backed up by my own experiences. I’ve tried to incorporate the empirical facts and experiments toward achieving a specific outcome, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve done all I thought I could do.

With seconds to go the race director gave a speech about the course, the rules, the aid stations…. Some of the runners were quiet; others still anxiously jumped up and down, stretched, or slapped their arms back and forth across their chests in nervous anticipation. I reached my hand out to a man next to me: “Good luck!” I wished him. “You too!” he answered. Then I bent down once more to check my shoelaces, to make sure that they were tight and double-knotted, yet loose enough not to constrict the feet. It was so important to get them just right.