How To Run 555 Miles In Six Days: Joe Fejes’s Across The Years Report
[Editor’s Note: Joe Fejes won and set an American record for miles run on a non-track surface in six days at the Across the Years (ATY) Six-Day Race, which ended on January 3. This is his report from running 555.361 miles.]
Last year in the Across the Years three-day (72-hour) race at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, I won with 329 miles, breaking Yiannis Kouros’s longstanding event record of 323 miles.
For the 2013/2014 Across the Years, I was excited to learn that the Coury brothers and Aravaipa Running had added the six-day (144-hour) event in an effort to recapture the excitement and glory of the great six-day pedestrian races of the 1880s. As crazy as it sounds, the six-day races in the 1880s used to sell out the Madison Square Garden in New York City. The prize money equated to several hundred thousand dollars in today’s dollars. Sports betting, heavy drinking, and smoking made the ‘go as you please’ pedestrian matches a big hit with yesteryear spectators. For anyone interested in the history of pedestrian races, I highly recommend Paul Marshall’s King of the Peds.
Despite the fact that I would not be running in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden for several hundred thousand dollars, I signed up with great anticipation for Across the Years as soon as the six-day race was announced in March 2013. I had eight months to prepare. I decided I would:
- Conduct a feasibility study to set a goal,
- Decide on a pacing strategy after consulting the experts,
- Ensure that I had quality handlers and equipment, and
- Execute my race strategy on race day.
[Author’s Note: Although I have tried to keep the content of this report basic enough for all runners, this race report is intended primarily for advanced ultrarunners. Beginner ultrarunners may want to first read my race report from last year’s Across the Years 72-Hour Race called How to run over 300 miles in 3 days, which lays out the fundamentals necessary to run a multi-day event.]
Step 1: Conduct a Feasibility Study and Set a Goal
In order to set a realistic but aggressive goal, I researched the following websites to see the existing American and world records: DUV Statistik and American Ultrarunning Association. It turns out that the unofficial American record was set in 1984 by Stu Mittleman on an indoor track at the University of Colorado with 577 miles. The official American record was 554 miles set by George Gardiner. Stu’s 577 miles was unofficial because the required USATF paperwork was never submitted. The six-day world record of 639 miles is held by Yiannis Kouros.
To break Stu’s 577 miles, I would have to essentially run 96 miles each day, which equates to a 15-minute-per-mile pace or a pace of 6 hours, 33 minutes per marathon. This calculation, however, assumes zero sleep, which is unrealistic… at least, for mortal men. For Greek gods, it’s quite a different story.
Not being a Greek god myself, I compiled the following pace calculations that assume four to six hours of total sleep/breaks for each 24-hour period:
|Run time (hrs)||24||20||18|
|Minutes per mile||15||12:30||11:15|
Step 2: Determine Pacing Strategy
Once I determined my goal mileage of 577 miles, I next had to determine the best way to accomplish my goal. Should I run an even pace, or should I frontload my miles with a planned daily decline? I decided to consult with the experts who had knowledge of historical, six-day, runner performances that had achieved between 500 and 600 miles. I consulted with my mentors Ray Krowlewicz, Andy Milroy, Dan Brannen, Nick Marshall, Marty Sprengelmeyer, and Trishul Churns.
None of these gentlemen currently fits the in-vogue definition of ‘hottie ultrarunner.’ They do not have flowing, long hair. In fact, some are balding. They also do not have trendy beards like the 2013 Boston Red Sox baseball players. They are not on any super-fad diets, supplements, or magic health regimes. Rather, they are generally in their 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s and several no longer run. Some may even be a tad pudgy around the middle. They haven’t been on a cover of UltraRunning since the 80’s. Yet, I knew that these guys possessed the fountain of knowledge that I needed to devise a rock-solid game plan. Many newbie runners make the mistake of listening to the trendy, ‘elite’ runner of the month rather than looking to the real experts for ultrarunning advice.
Below is a compilation of some of the historical daily splits for six-day runners who achieved between 541 and 607 miles:
As can be seen in the chart above, Wolfgang Schwerk, Gilbert Mainix, and Jean-Giles Boussiquet were pretty steady daily decliners while Ramon Zabalo, Patrick Macke, Stu Mittleman, and Tom O’Reilly were more even-split-type runners. I had to be careful, however, from drawing too many conclusions, since many of these runners were 2:30 or faster marathoners and simply had superior leg speed compared to my paltry 2:47 marathon PR. They could afford to sleep six to eight hours each night and still hit their mileage goals. I could not.
In the end, I decided my pace strategy would be to generally follow the raw average of these 11 performances. If I was successful, this would give me 579 miles to beat Stu’s elusive mark.
My pre-race training for the eight months prior to ATY primarily focused on achieving solid performances in several goal ultra races. In May 2013, I ran 154 miles and finished 10th at the IAU 24-hour World Championship in Steenbergen, Netherlands. In July 2013, I finished the challenging 500k Last Annual Vol State Run in 3 days, 8 hours to beat the great DeWayne Satterfield’s longstanding course record. I was especially pleased with this outcome since the Vol State course has many hilly climbs and is run in the stifling Southern U.S. heat and humidity. In September 2013, I won the Hinson Lake 24 Hour with 141 miles, which is pretty good since it is a trail loop. In October 2013, I had a strong run at the tough Superior Sawtooth 100 in northern Minnesota, finishing sixth overall in 28:50. Finally, two weeks prior to the ATY six-day race, I ran 3:05 at the Huntsville Rocket City Marathon as a tune-up. I also experimented with various types of yoga the last couple of months prior to the race. Loved it, but damn, is that stuff tough—especially the hot Ashtanga. Never sweated so much in my life! Bottom line is, I felt prepared physically going into Across the Years.
As part of my usual race prep, I size up my competition by checking out their stats in UltraSignup. I already knew about Yiannis Kouros, having raced against him the past two years at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships. In 2012 at Katowice, Poland, Yiannis beat me by a half-mile when he passed me the last hour and we both finished with 147-plus miles. This year, at Steenbergen, Netherlands, I beat Yiannis by approximately 10 miles, even though he had a few-mile lead on me at the halfway point.
Ed Ettinghausen and William Sichel were the other two runners whom I knew to be formidable competitors. Ed had recently run a blistering 14:50 100 mile and sparkling 144-mile, 24-hour performance at the Desert Solstice Invitational two weeks prior, which essentially was nine minutes slower than my Desert Solstice the year before.
As I stated in last year’s race report, for any race I run, I am trying to be at my competitive best by running hard. Having won the last two years’ 72-hour races at ATY, I felt that Camelback Ranch was my personal sandbox and that there was only one shovel to play with. As far as I was concerned, no one else was going take my shovel.
Step 3: Handlers and Equipment
I was super-excited to find out a few months prior to the race that my ultrarunning mentor and Vol State handler—the ‘grumpy, old guy,’ Richard Schick—would be going with me to ATY. Rich is a former military medic who has been running and winning ultramarathons for more than 30 years. At Vol State, he worked his magic on my blisters and kept me in great spirits throughout the race. Rich has an extremely calm demeanor, but is plenty tough enough to keep me in line as well as deflecting any abuse I was sure to dish on him as the race progressed. Most importantly, Rich and I always have a comical and fun time tackling these sort of adventures together as a team. As an added bonus, I found out at the race that Mike Dobies, whom I had met at the Big Dog Backyard Ultra and who is known for his mathematical and computer skills, would also be available to assist Rich as a second handler. In a nutshell, I had a world-class crew ready to assist me in accomplishing my goal.
Step 4: Execute My Race Strategy
Day 1 was a blur. Jon Olsen was running the 48-hour race and I planned on simply using him as a benchmark for my pace. Jon had indicated before the race that he would probably be running about 140 miles as his goal pace for the first 24 hours. Having run 141 miles last year on Day 1, I thought I could comfortably run between 125 and 140 miles. This would put me in good position to achieve my 577-mile goal. At this point, I really wasn’t concerned about Yiannis. Based on his racing style at the 24-hour world championship—generally, to go out hard and fast, and then fade somewhat during the second half—I figured he would be five to 10 miles ahead of me on Day 1. I was confident that I would eventually reel him in as the days progressed.
Once again, I had my typical stomach issues the first 16 hours, even though I was consuming my primary go-to liquid products: Succeed Clip2, Coke, water, and chicken soup. I also had a few bites of banana. I ended up completing 135 miles on Day 1.
I was feeling really confident at the beginning of Day 2. As the day progressed, however, I developed painful tendonitis in my left foot and leg, along the side of my calf to the top of my foot. My extensor tendons that are responsible for dorsiflexion became inflamed and extremely sore. It felt like my shoelace and/or timing-chip ankle bracelet may have contributed to cutting off the circulation and making the area swell.
I told my crew, Rich, that it hurt bad enough that I thought I should stop running. Rich examined it and did a few tests to rule out a stress fracture of the bone. He concluded that it was simply severe tendonitis and that continuing to run, while sure to be painful, would not cause any permanent damage. I somewhat skeptically followed his advice and continued to run. Rich re-laced my shoe by removing the top lace and moved the chip from the ankle bracelet to my shoe. I told Jon Olsen and Ray Krowlewicz, my mentor who was also running the six-day event, about my condition but asked that they keep it secret. As Yiannis and I were running within a few miles of each other, I did not want Yiannis to realize I was having physical issues so early in the race.
It soon became clear to me that my goal of 577 miles would be very difficult to reach in light of my injury. Ray soothed my disappointment by reminding me that the ATY six-day race was simply supposed to be a stepping-stone experience for me to prepare for my Alaska Six Days in the Dome six-day race that was scheduled for August 2014. On the positive side, my stomach settled down and I was soon successfully eating and drinking everything in sight.
Days 3 and 4
My tendonitis actually felt better during Days 3 and 4, and my spirits were growing. Then again, emotions can be erratic on the third or fourth day of a ultramarathon race. One example of this phenomenon occurred with my handler, Rich. I told Rich I was hungry for a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, so off he went to hunt for a nearby KFC. After eagerly awaiting his return, I tore open the bucket and was shocked to learn that it was primarily extra crispy. How can I describe the tumult of emotions that tore through me?
“Dammit, Rich,” I shouted with all-consuming passion, “I wanted the original, not extra crispy!” Amazing, the highs and lows you go through during a six-day event—or any ultra, for that matter. Conversely, I felt like I’d hit nirvana when Rich was able to obtain a ripe avocado that he sliced up nicely for me.
I ended up with 303 miles after Day 3, which was about 20 miles less than I had originally planned.
My big goal during Day 4 was simply to get in position to be the first person to 400 miles. The first person to 400 miles won $250 prize money. Accordingly, I mapped out a sleeping strategy that would allow me to get to 400 miles before Yiannis. Even on Day 4, we continued to swap the lead. I hoped to relax somewhat once I hit my 400.
Early on in Day 5, I hit the 400-mile mark first and won the $250. I could tell that Yiannis was struggling. I understood that he had slept very little, if at all. And that is the difference between Greek gods and mortal men. Whereas I could not have functioned on his level of sleep deprivation, the only sign he exhibited was a certain amount of wobbling over the course, although he did stagger off on a couple of occasions. I also noticed that Yiannis seemed to be having back issues, stopping to do special stretches on and off the course from time to time. We continued to trade positions, but I was confident that I would continue to rack up bigger miles on a daily basis based on my stronger overall condition, despite my leg injury.
My new goal was to be the first to 500 miles, which was worth $500. Once again, I tried to schedule my sleep break to fit in with beating YK to the 500-mile mark. I was trying to match YK with some fast laps— actually, I was trying to drop the hammer on him on Day 5—when I felt a sharp and painful pop in my injured tendon area.
“Holy shit, did I just rupture my tendon?” I said to myself. Fortunately, the pain did not worsen. It actually felt a tad looser. I did, however, experience an immediate squeaky, air-bubble-type sensation all along the tendon sheath. Again, I asked Rich if I should stop. The last thing I wanted was to run on a ruptured or torn tendon. Rich assured me that this was simply a classic sign of severe tendonitis and that I did not have a ruptured tendon. I, therefore, continued to run, although I vowed not to run a fast lap for the remainder of the race.
Early on during Day 6, I hit the 500-mile mark first and was happy to know I had won another $500, which would help cover my race-entry fee and other expenses. After I hit 500 miles, my goal was simply to get to 555 miles to break George Gardiner’s U.S. mark. My crew, Rich and Mike, had a list of the top-10 U.S. six-day times and let me know after I surpassed each one. This always helps keep my motivation strong. That, and my desire to win the race.
YK was still hanging tough. I could not shake him. I was, however, able to gain a 10-mile lead on him with about 12 hours to go. Mike and Rich said that I should sleep until YK was within five miles of me and then get back at it. When I awoke, Mike said that, based on his math, I could run 16-minute loops for the final 12 hours and YK would have to run at least 14 minutes or faster to overcome my five-mile advantage. I therefore decided to invoke a ‘four-corners’ delay offense by sitting behind YK and essentially matching his pace for as long as possible. Each lap that I matched him would add to my advantage. It would also help me reach my goal of 555 miles.
Round and round the course we went, and I continued to hang on. With about six hours left, YK started slowing to the point where I decided to pass. As I passed him, Yiannis asked me what my goal was. I told him between 540 and 554 miles. He told me he had hurt his legs and scolded me for taking advantage of his condition. He seemed quite agitated with my four-corners-delay offense. He thought I should be running my own race and not competing against him. I apologized that my race strategy had upset him, but explained that I was doing what I could to win and also to reach my goal. Even Greek gods, it seems, experience bouts of emotion on the sixth day of an ultramarathon. Unfortunately I was born with 60% hearing loss (nerve damage) in both ears and had difficulties understanding him because I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids, so I told him I hoped to continue our discussion after the race. I left YK and he continued to slow.
For the remainder of the race, I took my time finishing. The entire time, however, I was scared that one wrong step would result in a torn tendon and my race would be over. It actually hurt more to walk, though, than it did to shuffle forward. I ended up winning the race with 555 miles—enough to break George Gardiner’s record. Yiannis finished five miles behind me with 550 miles.
It was truly an epic, six-day battle.
Post Race and the Future
The race took a major toll on my body. I needed wheelchair assistance in the airports for my flight home. One week later and my leg is still swollen. The good news is that my podiatrist confirmed Rich’s diagnosis of severe tendonitis. I was able to convince him to allow me to go without a walking boot. Doc thinks I will see significant improvement in a couple of weeks. I also had mouth and throat sores and general fatigue that is just now lifting.
My diet has been out of whack. I have visited the local Little Hooties ice cream parlor and have consumed a double-scoop ice cream sundae every day for lunch along with a lot of other food. Last night, I finished off a glazed pecan cake roll and an Italian bar cake by myself, along with some Heath candy bars.
We will likely find out this week the location and date for the 2014 IAU 24-Hour World Championship. As our USA runners are the defending champs, I know we will have a target on our backs. In February, I am running the 24-hour event at the Destin Beach Ultra Runs in Destin, Florida. Zane Holscher and the Destin Ultra Runs have sponsored me the past year and I sincerely appreciate their assistance.
On August 4, 2014, I will be hosting the Six Days in the Dome (100-mile, 24-hour, 48-hour, and six-day events) on a 413-meter indoor track at the Alaska Dome in Anchorage, Alaska. Personally, I am shooting for 600-plus miles in the six-day event. I am hoping to attract a few sponsors in order to offer prize money for American or world-record performances. I suspect that a couple of athletes may challenge the 100-mile and 24-hour records. I am able to host the event only because of generous donations from close friends. I do not anticipate the event will be held in future years.