Practicing Selflessness

Running is a very selfish sport. Running most days of the year by myself, constantly plotting longer days where I can escape into the mountains, and sacrificing many nights out with friends for a better nights sleep. I’ve slowly learned and appreciated that embracing the broader running community makes the sport exponentially more enjoyable. And this often means giving support more than receiving. Running Fat Asses, volunteering at races, crewing friends, or simply holding each other accountable to keep pursuing individual goals when life tries to get in the way. Seeing the wider impact of running and community has transformed a hobby into a lifestyle, providing far more returns in this game of life than I ever imagined.

I’ve often tried to think bigger. How can I use my passion for running to serve others? How can I influence more people, to either live a more active life or redefine what they deemed possible? How can I support causes that will “outrun” me when this life ends? So when a close family friend suffered a spinal injury that left him immobile from the chest down, the wheels started turning on how I can support his family.

I didn’t give it a ton of thought. The answer seemed somewhat easy. He can’t walk, I can run, let’s make something happen. What came next was an unexpected adventure, reminding me that no matter how busy we get in life, serving others should always come first.

My friend’s name is Drew, actually the brother of my best friend but that distinction matters very little when it comes to best friends. So I came up with a silly name “May The Force Be with Drew” and accepted pledges to complete a 4.2 mile loop, every hour, on the hour until I was unable to continue. I set this all up to happen on…May 4th of course. I had just run a 50 mile race in early April and I wanted to help Drew now not later, so it seemed the window to do something like this had to be early May.

April was a bit of scramble to pull all the pieces together. I scrambled to find a donation platform that supported this type of campaign, and ideally, one that didn’t rake excessive fees. I scrambled to loosely determine pledge goals. And then I scrambled to get my body ready for what would hopefully be an entire day of running. It all came together rather quickly. Not easy but I cobbled together a campaign through Pledge It https://pledgeit.org/shuster-strong. I built a steady donation base through my closest friends and family members and then quickly casted a wider net. I thought 100 pledges and $20k would be really hard to reach yet in two weeks, I was basically there. I was emailing and texting people each day and then nudging people a few days later. I was sending personalized thank you emails as quickly as I could and then shifting my campaign efforts to LinkedIn and other platforms. It was truly amazing to see the names and donations come through, many from people that either don’t know Drew personally or I hadn’t seen in decades. It was inspiring to see such kindness in a world where it’s sometimes hard to find.

Then all I had to do was run and because this is a running journal, I’ll go into some of those details.

What: a 4.1667 mile loop, every hour, on the hour.

It all sounds so easy. Surely I can do this for hours on end. Surely I can get to 75 miles if not 100. While parts of those sentences are right, there were some challenges to this framework that are under appreciated until you’re actually doing it. Let’s break it down.

My car was packed with what I thought would be enough food and water for 24 hours. I had Nicole set to bring me some meals later in the day. The rest was largely on me, to navigate loops, manage my transitions, and keep going as long as I could.

First loop was fun and easy. 45 minutes of easy running with a 15 minute transition that felt like an hour. I mostly used this loop to strategize different points where I’d walk along the course. The key, as I saw it, was to move with ease and not get sucked into running faster than necessary. And this meant knowing when to run slow and when to walk.

Loops two and three were accompanied by friends from our local gym. While none of them runners, I was happy to have some company. But they were slow (not being mean, both stronger than any humans should be) and we used the entire hour to get through each loop.

Loops four and five were faster, roughly 45 and 42 minutes respectively. I had more company from a running friend and then Nicole. After getting no time to refuel on those slow loops, I intentionally pushed the pace for these loops so that I could get back to eat, drink, and shed some clothes as day started to warm up. At this point, I was moving well but I could feel certain body parts working much too hard for this early in the day, even on those slow loops. My hamstrings were crabby and this recurring calf/heel thing was barking at me. It felt like I was closer to 50 miles yet I was only 20 miles. Not a great sign but yah know, it doesn’t always get worse.

Loops 6 through 13 were somewhat uneventful. Lots of alone time and some music to pass the miles. Possibly too much Steve Winwood but also not enough! My pace started to shift from ~45 minutes per loop to 48-50 minutes per loop. The time between loops seemed never enough and I was working harder each loop in hopes of a slightly longer break yet the harder I worked, the longer each loop took. Or so it felt. I kept thinking, “get to loop 13” or “get to sunset” as a way to manage the mental load. It was helpful but time still seemed to move slow.

Loop 14 started out good. The sun was starting to set, temps were cooling, and I was thankful to be past the halfway mark. But it went from good to not good rather abruptly. I found myself suddenly very cold and sweating profusely. I felt weak, lightheaded, and on the verge of passing out. I was 2 miles back to the car which was a bit scary and worsened by thoughts of several more hours of “this.” I started to panic a bit and immediately went into some breathing exercises to alleviate the situational stress. I tried to see if the feeling would pass but it only worsened. So I settled into a fast paced walk and not so calmly got back to my car. It was just before 8p (~60 miles) and the next loop was set to begin but I knew I had to get my body straight. I was sweating and shivering and something wasn’t right. This has happened before, only once, and best I can tell it was a blood sugar drop which is not uncommon for this type of situation. A situation where you’re demanding a lot from your body and it’s easy to lose track of your nutrition. I had been eating and hydrating so I wasn’t expecting this, buuuuut 60 miles deep and it’s quite possible my nutrition intake just wasn’t enough. Once back to my car, I tossed on a winter coat and wrapped my legs in a blanket yet I kept shivering. Nicole left me a pizza so I ate about half that with some ginger ale and thankfully started to regain some feeling of normalcy. The hour to start loop 15 had passed so I set back out at 8:30, feeling better but still a little weak.

Loop 15 was slow. The darkness brought some ease but more importantly, a friend returned for a night loop with me. He was critical to giving me encouragement when I was at my weakest. We navigated another loop together, mostly shuffling but I was moving slow. He left and I thought, two more loops and then it’s the final stretch.

I set back out at 10p, falling back into the hourly cadence even if I missed an hour with my near passing out. I started to shuffle and then couldn’t. Sustaining anything more than a walk was not happening. I kept trying and then kept walking. Everything felt uphill and my legs didn’t have anything left in them. I made it back to my car and knew I was done.

I gave it some time. By my self defined rules, I had broken the every hour on the hour commitment but this is for a good cause so I gave myself some grace. Doing that a second time didn’t feel smart. The purpose was to push myself but not put myself beyond risking my health. So I stopped.

This isn’t another DNF. For starters, it wasn’t a race. Second, once I didn’t start loop 15 on time, the event was over. But I thought about the cause and somewhat bent the rules for a greater good. And lastly, my body was clearly telling me something and I was damn pleased to have made it 70 miles given how my body felt early in the day.

What I Learned

  • The format is harder than I expected. When you hit a wall, you don’t have the luxury to walk until you feel better. You have to maintain a minimum pace and sometimes maintaining a shuffle is not always easy. So when I wanted that longer stretch to walk a little more and get my legs back under me, the opportunity was never there. It’s beyond inspiring to think people can do this for days, literally, and I only made it to hour 16. Yikes.

  • If you’ve read about backyard ultras, the format is almost the same. Some have nuanced differences but the key number is 4.1667. Complete that distance every hour on the hour and make damn sure you’re back to the start line when the next lap starts. I picked the Redmond Watershed Preserve because it has soft, well maintained trails with very little elevation change. The tricky part was finding the right route inside the park. I went out several times in April to do different combinations yet each visit was either ~4.5 miles or 4 miles. So I set out on the 4.5 mile route because doing less than 4.167 sounded silly. The Watershed is hard to get consistent GPS reads, as I also heard from other runners, yet I was a bit surprised when my first loop was 4.31. This isn’t about 4.31 vs 4.5 as much as that extra distance beyond 4.1667 proved more impactful imagined. It didn’t matter early when I was doing 40-45 min loops but when I was closer to 50 minutes or even 58 mins on loop 15, those extra minutes I was on the trail and not at the car were precious minutes lost. And if I had to make a “pitstop” on the trail, I found myself urgently rushing back to the car just to rush back out. This was a healthy reminder that many things in life are hard, don’t make them harder.
  • I see two strategies and pretty sure I’d say the other is better no matter what. I chose to maximize the transition time and literally not carry water or food. Before my audience of zero screams at me, 45 minutes is not a long period to go without food or water assuming I’m refueling with each transition. I wanted to run light and really didn’t want the added weight of a bladder or just stuff in my pack as I tend to carry a lot with almost every other long running adventure. My plan, that I largely stuck to, was to alternate food and electrolytes with each transition. For the most part, this went well. Bananas, picky bars, and pop tarts early. Comfort food later with a turkey club sandwich, french fries, and even pizza once past the 12 hour mark. But I think this is where a crew makes a huge difference with this ultra format. What I thought would be easy transitions between loops became scrambles to eat, drink, whatever and then start the next loop on time. Anything that wasn’t ready to be consumed, like making a pb&j was annoying when minutes were so valuable. In hindsight, because the format favors slow and steady, I often wonder if I should have used my short walk breaks while on the trail to eat and drink and then spend less time transitioning… I dunno…

  • I didn’t mind the repetitiveness. I had 2 “checkpoints” to know if I was on pace or behind but I’ll say, the “next destination” of a normal trail race is faaar more uplifting than returning to your damn car hour after hour. I did two reverse loops which were a nice mental release as I wasn’t gut checking my watch at the checkpoints and as it turned out, it took me the same time. Maybe I should have ignored my watch altogether.

Final Thoughts

I’m so darn happy to have helped Drew and his family. I’m so darn impressed by how others showed up to help someone or find inspiration in my efforts to run all day and night. As much as I fixate on only getting 70 miles, those miles will surely be the least important 70 miles of my life because the work put into raising money for Drew was the only thing that mattered.

I’d like to find more ways to serve others and practice selflessness, specifically with running mixed into the equation. I have dreams of creating a running club, moonlighting as a race director (zero cost, low frill events appropriately called Fat Asses), so maybe this will spur me down that path. Until then I’m going to practice more acts of kindness and keep doing what I love, to run.

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