ATY 2010: A New Year Surprise

A race report by 72 Hour winner George Biondic.

After 30 years of running, we (I) retired in May. Unknown to me, my wife Erlinda applied on my behalf for the ATY race. Later she explained ” You can walk and we can relax and enjoy the experience one last time.” ATY seemed the ideal choice with its history, great location, organization and volunteers. We were doing the 3 day event starting December 29. Still, I had doubts. I was tired of all the injuries and pain. We were feeling our age and my memory was fading prematurely. Most of all I wanted  to spend more time with her, instead of countless hours training.

But, I relented. My training consisted solely of walking. Martina Hausmann had great results with walking. Our goal was 200 miles and middle of the pack. I was looking forward to meeting many runners, including Paul Grimm, a terrific guy who beat me last year at the Run To The Future 24 Hour in Arizona.

We arrived at Nardini Manor outside of Phoenix, very well prepared and relaxed. While setting up our tent, we had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Hagen and his wife Joyce. I expressed my admiration for his insightful awareness of running strategies, which I used over the last 7 years.

Andy Lovy, who has over a 1000 miles on this course showed us around.

RD Nick Coury started the race. The great 300 miler John Geesler led the field with his typical fearlessness. He has perhaps the most recognizable face, because of his rock star appearance.

Mistakenly, I expected dry 45-70 degree weather. The first day was unusually cold and rainy but  I had no good rain gear. Eventually, ponchos were distributed to those who needed them.

The course became muddy, so everyone moved along caustiously. Volunteers valiently cleared the water. On the positive side it is a short course thereby giving everyone a sense of connectivity. We were a band of warriors that was not about to quit.

George Circles the Track

That night when rain hit its hardest, I slept in a nice warm tent. It was a struggle to get out into the cold. To overcome this I ran about 4 minutes every hour. Erlinda warned me that running was not part of our plan. But the great food prepared by by the friendly volunteers was energising.

Thirty-six hours into the race I said ” Half way there.” Someone laughted and I saw the absurdity of my statemement. The second night the temperature dropped to 28.  After a half hour sleep, I increased running to 8 minutes each hour.

By the 3rd day everyone was struggling, but when the skies cleared it warmed up and everyones’ spirits picked up. But a different kind of drama was around the corner.

In the early hours of the race, I was 25th, where we expected to end. Eight hours in, I was 30 miles from the lead. This is when I started climbing up, unintentionally. When John was hit by a mysterious condition, he switched to walking and a door opened for the rest of us. Two days in, I was 3rd and 12 miles from the lead. That evening, I decided to go for it. First place was held by two interesting runners. Ed Ettinghausen is a charismatic 48 year old American who everyone, including myself enjoyed talking with. Andreas Falk is a 33 year old Swede with striking looks and god like physique that women would easily swoon over. On the other side is myself, a little 135 lb. disturber who is past his prime at age of 58.

Basking in the Sun – A Relief!

The viability of this challenge was based on a few things. Firstly, I observed that both guys were having  problems, while I felt fresh. Secondly, I have always been a strong finisher. Thirdly, a significant thing happened two hours earlier. After waking up in the communal tent and trying to rush out, a voice from the next cot  asked if we had any Ibuprofen. “No, sorry.” Erlinda answered. “You got to help him.”  I said. So she got some pills from the medic along with water. Later, he confided that Ed and Andreas had formed a pact to finish together. I concluded that if I overcame one guy the other would go down as well.

Shortly after the New Year celebration, I joined Ed and Andreas to let them know that I was going for 1st place. They looked shocked and confused. “You got to get past us to do that” Ed said. To avoid a painful struggle, I suggested we share 1st place 3 ways. “Why should we? We have a good lead” Ed replied. I explained my reasoning and suggested they think about it. But warned that the offer was good for the next little while. Privately, I thought that if John came back to life we were all burnt toast.

While I got a drink, they checked the leader board. They had 216 miles and I was 5 behind. Immediately they switched to jogging. Still I caught up to them. Andreas’s coach threw a bottle, which he grabbed on the run. Wow, is this guy ever cool, I thought. Then like 3 race horses at the gates, we broke loose. Their answer was silent but powerful. By my standards,  the pace was insane and yet wtith foolish bravado I said “This is fun.” From the sideline, a surpirsed Erlinda yelled to me “What is going on?” With gusto I replied “A race for first place.” This was equally her race and I wanted her to come along for the ride. Just when I thought the pace could not get  faster, it did. People were checking out the leader board and staring at us. Cameras were flashing. One tired runner perked up and said, “I am enjoying this and I have the best seat in the house.”

Endorphins were rushing through every vein in my body. I felt young and powerful. But for how long? I knew that I was willing and able to endure a lot of pain, because I had dedicated this race to Erlinda and she was everything to me.

In hindsight they did the right thing. In competition, unless an injury is evident, you should do your best. Andy simplified it to ” I like this. It is what running is all about.” In his mental state John showed amazing tenacity. Martina also put in a gutsy performance, given her injury.

I have two regrets. One, that I did not give Martina a comforting hug, even though we are strangers. The second, that I did not acknowledge sufficiently the support from fellow runners, spectators, family and friends.

As we raced for about 5 miles, I looked for any signs of weakness. Ed’s shoulders slumped slightly and I thought he would be first to snap. But suddenly it was Andreas who stopped and shouted “Oh, my quad! You go with him.” But true to his promise, Ed stayed back with his friend. In the meantime, I pressed on adding more miles, in case they made a comeback.

Hitting 400k, Only a Minute to Spare!

At 6 a.m. convinced that I had a sufficient lead, I stopped. Erlinda rushed over and advised me to keep moving. I turned around and she disappeared like a ghost. For in fact, minutes had passed since she said those words. I walked aimlessly in the dark alone not knowing where I was or what I was doing. Fortunately, the sun rose and my head cleared.

I pushed on energetically with a new goal: 400k (248 miles) which I reached with only seconds to spare. I ended 10 miles ahead of  Ed and Andreas.

My three day mile splits were 83-77-88 with 47 in the last 12 hours and on a total of two hours sleep.

Photo Credit Ray Krolewicz

At the awards, all cheered loudly for Martina who was in tears as she proudly received her 2000 mile jacket. Andreas and Ed hugged as their names were announced. Andreas was happy to have set a Swedish record. Ed had completed 920 miles on a pair of of shoes in the hopes of getting sponsership from the manufacturer. When I accepted our plaque, I felt an outpouring of goodwill through the cheers and smiles. I mentioned to the Coury brothers that it was quite a coincidence that exactly a year ago, they gave me a lift right after the RTTF race, when my taxi did not show up.

I went over to Andreas to shake hands and offer an olive branch. In the heat of the race, it is easy to misunderstand someone.

That night, in the quiet of our hotel room Erlinda and I lay, so exhausted we could barely move a muscle. We talked about the most unexpected turn of events. Our first win came on our last race. As our minds drifted into oblivion, she said “Promise me you will consider doing this race next year.” I just smiled.