By Jay Murry
I am not afraid!
And I won’t go down in flames
Nothing’s gonna be the same
And everything you know
Keep inside your soul
Cause tonight I’m gonna be John Wayne!
–Billy Idol, “John Wayne”
This song is not one of his biggest hits, but it has become my favorite Billy Idol song. The refrain of that song listed above is especially meaningful, because it served as a rallying cry as I prepared for the 2015 Flatlanders 12-Hour Run in Fenton, Missouri.
I wanted to avenge a defeat orchestrated by Mother Nature, who with her Labor Day hot flashes brought me to submission with 90-degree heat in last year’s Flatlanders event. I sought to use the 2015 race to honor four family members who had passed away since my first ultra at the Flatlanders event in 2012.
I went down in flames in the 2014 Flatlanders race. I was ill-prepared for it, after spending much of the year with my ailing mother. Norma Murry was fighting to overcome two broken hips and a fractured pelvis that occurred in the span of two years, along with the complications of diabetes that finally was getting the best of her after 34 years with the disease. There were several trips back and forth from nursing home to hospital that gobbled up a lot of training time last year. Coincidentally (or not), Mother Nature ended a cooler-than-normal summer by inserting tropical humidity and stifling heat into the Labor Day weekend, just in time for a Flatlanders 12-hour sojourn. I didn’t do enough heat training, and after spending six hours in that veritable crock pot, I feared that further efforts would cause some serious problems for me. At 19.8 miles after six struggling hours, I tapped out of that 12-hour run.
I was embarrassed for quitting the race, because I felt like I let my family and friends down. In an attempt to make amends for that disappointment, I quickly decided to have another go at the Flatlanders event …especially when the race would be on September 6, the two-year anniversary of Dad’s passing. Then, when the deaths occurred between February and June of this year, of my mother, and Dad’s brother and sister, the Flatlanders ultra would serve to honor all four of them.
My father, Jerry Murry, introduced me to sports and coached many of my youth baseball and football teams. He worked with me in practices and at home, until one fateful day of batting practice when I was a sophomore in high school. I nearly took his head off with a line drive that shot past his right ear before he could lift his glove in defense. That was the last pitch of BP that Dad threw to me, when he walked off the mound and said with a sad smile, “Son, you’ve gotten too big for me to pitch to.” He also came out to see me finish one of my marathons, and was supportive of whatever path I deemed necessary to take in my life.
Mom attended and loudly cheered during all of my youth league and high school sports games. I could hear her clearly, no matter how loud the other parents were cheering. Mom’s voice also easily pierced through the raucous clatter of cowbells and the loud decibels from a marching band. When my playing days were over, she listened to as many of my play-by-play broadcasts as she could coax out of a static-filled radio. She got as much enjoyment of hearing her little boy call games as she did watching me play them.
Dad’s brother, Edward Murry, indirectly introduced me to running, after I heard him talk glowingly about the marathons that he raced and saw him go on a five-mile training run during a family summer camping trip that I thought was a spectacular thing to do. The many photos of his marathon efforts that hung on his basement walls were seeds of my running that were germinated during my college years. And, my dad’s sister, Dorothy Butler, enjoyed hearing about my sports broadcasting efforts and expressed hope that I could land a job in the Kansas City area because she wasn’t too impressed with the current lineup of broadcasters there.
They would be the focus of my tribute ultra, and I hoped to honor them by surpassing 40 miles for the first time in my running history.
The training was satisfactory—certainly better than last year. The amount of long runs that I completed was close to what I logged in 2012—when I was able to finish my first Flatlanders ultra with 39.84 miles. I felt confident that I had enough training to get close to 40 miles, and if race day dawned in ideal fashion, I thought that slipping past 40 miles was better than a 50-50 proposition.
There were two centerpieces of my training: long runs on the treadmill up to five hours and slightly beyond, to train the mind to deal with the monotony of seeing the same backdrop for hours; and twice-or-three times a week tempo treadmill runs, in which the speed was set at 3.5 MPH to start. Then, it was increased by 0.1 or 0.2 every 5-15 minutes, depending on the length of the effort and the desired intensity of it. So, by the time I ended a tempo run, I would be moving at a clip between 5-7 MPH. These types of training strolls provided specialized training for what I would experience in the Flatlanders 12-Hour Run, and what I hoped to implement in that race as I got close to the end.
The weather during the training was delightful…perhaps too much so. June was cool and wet, July was warm and pleasant, and August failed to feature its usual torrid heat to close the summer. That benevolent weather allowed me to comfortably log miles, but not much of a chance to get acclimated to the heat that could make a surprise visit on race day. Nothing like I was able to accomplish during the summer of 2012, in which there was no escape from the cauldron of heat. I was perfectly heat trained for that year’s Flatlanders race, but I ended up not needing it because remnants of Hurricane Isaac kept things cool for most of the 12 hours. As a result, I was able to unexpectedly enjoy cool conditions in my debut ultra.
But, last year also featured pleasant training weather, only to have Mother Nature turn on a sauna in St. Louis during the Labor Day Weekend with no time to train for the heat. As this summer progressed in similar fashion in 2015, I was concerned that a similar sweltering fate awaited the runners on September 6—Flatlanders race day. And, I feared that I would be confronted with making the same decision to quit that I faced last year.
As July moved to August, I fretfully frequented the website of Accuweather.com. It features long range forecasts that stretch two to three months into the future. When I saw forecast highs of upper 70s for September 6 posted for several weeks, I kept hopes alive for a cool race day. However, with two weeks to go before the 12-hour race, that all changed.
If Mother Nature was a human embodiment, she would have staged a press conference with deviously great fanfare…much like an archenemy in superhero movies and TV shows. She would also take great pleasure in delivering a painful forecast for September 6th. Gone were the hopes of a day in the upper 70s. Mother Nature dry-erased them from a white board, and wrote in forecast highs of the low 90s. I think she did so with a cackling laugh and fiendishly-sarcastic “Good Luck!” that would make Cruella DeVille proud.
Alarm bells sounded in my mind. I even audibly blurted a “NO” in protest. My worst fear was going to be realized—the likelihood of trudging through intense heat for a second straight Flatlanders ultra, without having a long stretch of heat training. I do not like extreme heat—especially extreme sunlit heat. I felt that I was close to heat exhaustion last year, in tropical-type heat and humidity that made it feel heavy to breathe and dissipate heat from the body. Such was the scene of my DNF last year, and Mother Nature apparently would return and wait in the wings in three weeks, to ruin this year’s effort.
So, how was I going to beat the heat that she gleefully was waiting to dispense on race day? With insufficient heat training, I had to somehow keep my exterior cool so my internal thermostat wouldn’t overheat. I canvassed eBay for cooling vests, remembering that Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi wore them before they won marathon medals in the Athens Olympics. The inexpensive ones only had lukewarm customer reviews, and the best ones were at least $150. If I ran for prize money as well as Deena and Meb, then I could justify the purchase. Since I am more tortoise than hare, I felt that money could be better spent on something else.
That something else would be ice. I had a couple of bandannas and a pair of arm sleeves, in which to carry some cubes with me on each Flatlanders lap. I wouldn’t need $150 worth, but $5 or $10 of ice to fill a couple of small coolers hopefully would be enough to get me through a sweltering 12 hours on race day. If not, well, I would have to be ready to bow in defeat to Mother Nature…no matter how distasteful that would be.
Speaking of distasteful, the race-day forecast fit that description when the expected high temperature was bumped up to the mid-90s during the final week of training. Thankfully, my mind was kept busy with work and broadcasting Washington University men’s soccer and football games. After the football game concluded on the afternoon before Flatlanders, I barely had time to gather and pack the items needed for race day. No time to talk myself into a black hole of negativity. Necessary items were gathered and packed, and I said a quick prayer as my head descended toward the pillow.
The final countdown to Flatlanders 2015 began at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, three hours before the start of the race. To offset my concern of the upcoming rising heat, I opted to play a CD featuring the music and narration of NFL Films during the drive to the race. Good decision #1 of the day, since it pumped up my frame of mind as I drove to Fenton City Park in the pre-dawn darkness. I wanted to get there around 60-90 minutes before the race began, to have enough time to calmly set up my chairs, coolers, and a large plastic bin that contained everything from food and extra running gear, to a Ziploc bag of first-aid items. Then, the idea was to have a half-hour or so left to get through the line at the restroom, and to have a few moments left to go through my game plan before the starting horn.
The plan was simple. Run at a comfortable pace to bank some early miles before the onset of the onerous heat, and liberally start using the ice in two coolers when the temperature touched 90 degrees. If necessary, use a speed walk to keep my pace from dropping too much during the heat of the day. Ideally, that would enable me to have enough gas in the tank to push the pace when the shadows began to lengthen with 2-3 hours left in the race. If there was nothing but fumes left, then the priority was to survive the heat and complete all 12 hours of the race.
I only had one other experience of being in an athletic event during mid-90s heat. I played a JV high school football game in 1980 that started with me being on the field with no breaks—playing offense, defense, and special teams. By the end of the first quarter, I told the head coach that he needed to choose either offense or defense for me, because the heat wasn’t going to allow me to do both. Likewise, 35 years later, I decided to reduce my primary goal for the Flatlanders 12-Hour Run from 40 miles to 31.1 (50 km), so I wouldn’t pressure myself to chase a goal that could lead to overheating. All that was left to do was to put one foot in front of the other for 12 hours without quitting.
The horn to start the 12-hour odyssey sounded, and around 75 runners lurched into their first strides of the day. Roughly 40 of them were doing the six-hour run, and around 35 or so chose the 12-hour version. Frank Shorter famously said during his heyday of winning gold and silver Olympic medals that he could tell within the first few steps or strides how he was going to perform. I felt very good…the legs felt elastic instead of heavy and clod-like. And, while the temperature was very warm at the start, the humidity was lower than the start of last year’s race. One could actually take a full breath without the sensation of someone sitting on your chest. It was a nice way to start the race.
I covered 8.4 miles during the first two hours, amid frequent checks of my iPhone thermometer. The mercury had climbed into the 80s, so it wouldn’t be long until Mother Nature upped the ante and sent the temperature beyond 90. At that point, it would be time to bring the ice out of the bullpen for some long relief. At 11:30 a.m., four hours into the Flatlanders 12, the thermometer read 90. I tensed up a bit, knowing that this would be the pivotal moment of my race. I had accrued 14 miles, on pace for 42. After checking in with my lap counter, I strode to my coolers to deploy the best and only weapon I had in my race preparation arsenal to go toe-to-toe with Mother Nature.
I first thought that putting ice cubes directly into my bandanna and arm sleeves would be the right play, but that was an epic fail. The ice cubes that sat on top of my head gave me a brain-freeze headache, the kind that you get when you drink an ice-cold shake or smoothie too deeply, too quickly. The headache occurred so quickly, just steps away from my cooler. I angrily walked back to it after shooing the cubes away from my scalp. “HOW CAN I MAKE THIS WORK?!!”, I shouted to myself, knowing that I had to find a way very soon to keep me cool or risk wilting in the heat that had continued its relentless march past 90 degrees.
One cooler had just ice cubes, the other had sports drinks. Fortunately, as I was reaching for a drink, I noticed that some of the ice in that cooler had started to melt, leaving a nice puddle of ice-cold water a couple of inches deep. I may not be the sharpest Ginsu knife in the drawer, but I knew in that instant what to do…dredge the bandanna and arm sleeves in the ice water, fully soak them to where they were dripping wet when I pulled them out, and quickly put them on my overheating head and arms.
And, so I did.
It wasn’t a heart-jolting shock that a full body-length dive into an icy swimming pool produces on a blazing hot day. With just the head and arms super-cooled, it felt more like stepping in your own personal traveling walk-in cooler. And, pardon the watery pun, it had a positive ripple effect that extended beyond the head and arms. My skin didn’t feel too flushed from the heat, and feeling cooler on the inside seemed to relax me and aid my breathing. And, less anxiety created more confidence that I could trust my training to carry the rest of the day.
The first couple of laps that I covered after deploying the ice water soakings were perhaps the best of the entire 12-hour trek. Not only was I feeling much better physically, I grinned because I had just landed a couple of bombshell punches to Ma Nature’s jaw. And, she was staggered enough to get a standing eight-count from the referee.
As the six-hour run ended, I noticed that the 1.4-mile Fenton City Park loop became much more desolate. Those that planned their exit after six hours were very grateful, for at 1:30 p.m. the temperature had risen to 95 degrees on my iPhone thermometer. Not a cloud in the sky—just the scorching sun that turned the park into a skillet, and the runners were pan-seared steaks. The row of canopies along the course just past the lap-counting tables started to look like triage tents—several runners sprawled on lawn chairs under them, and a couple were prone on the ground, suffering from the effects of the stifling-hot weather. And, a few of them appeared to be ultramarathon veterans. That made me a bit nervous, even after having my ice-water epiphany that buoyed my spirits. I said a quick prayer to Mom, Dad, Uncle Ed, and Aunt Dorothy that my good luck would continue for a few more hours.
The Flatlanders race officials and volunteers did their best to help the runners. The drinks that I picked up from the aid station tables were nice and cold, and there were big buckets filled with ice water and sponges for those who needed relief. I didn’t partake in the use of the buckets—choosing to save them for those who didn’t have ice of their own. Even with the buckets, some runners simply had enough heat for one day and left the race.
After the temperature reached 95, I didn’t look at the thermometer anymore. It may have ticked upward a couple of degrees before it leveled off, but I wasn’t willing to risk onset of depression to find out. How hot was it? Even with the ice-water soakings, the cooling effect from them only lasted about three-quarters of a mile. Halfway through a lap, my bandanna went from ice-cold and wet to warm and nearly dry—to the point where I had to wet it down at a water fountain before I made my way back to the lap-counting tables and my oasis. I lost a lot of valuable time administering the ice-water applications after every lap, but I was banking on the hope that I could make up that time by moving well in the final two hours.
My tactics began to draw rave reviews from some of the other runners who had watched me self-administer the ice-water soakings. A race official who went from camp to camp to check on the runners came upon my location under a big shade tree. “You look fresh! How are you doing it?” he asked…apparently surprised that I didn’t look like an extra on The Walking Dead. I gave a quick description and demonstration. “Wow! That’s a great idea!” he exclaimed. A couple of other runners paid visits to my camp to see what I was doing, and were impressed. I didn’t think I was all that brilliant, but I could understand that some runners may have forgotten to bring ice, in the midst of gathering items and the general confusion that final preparations for an ultra can create. I was glad that I put the ice first and foremost at the top of my list.
There wasn’t much movement in the park—no softball or soccer games that I could watch during my stroll to take my mind off of the task at hand, and no family reunion picnics where kids could be seen playing near pavilions. It was eerily quiet—the birds and insects that chime in with their afternoon noise on a good day evidently sought a quieter and cooler refuge. Nobody was outdoors except crazy ultramarathoners in Fenton and those who were delightfully immersed in swimming pools throughout the St. Louis area.
At the halfway point, I had totaled 19.8 miles…the same total that I reached last year. However, there was no inclination to tap out of the race this year. As long as I didn’t get crazy and start sprinting like a madman, I was cautiously optimistic that I would last all the way to the finish and defeat Mother Nature. I would like to say that I was able to gallop valiantly with every passing hour, and raise my arms in victory at the finish line; but I had another problem to deal with, just as I had finished solving what I considered the main problem that I would face.
Along with the heat, I now had stomach issues to confront. Last year, one of the big problems I faced was that the sugary sports drink that I had consumed just sat in my stomach; sloshing around to the point where it caused nausea if I tried to run. It wouldn’t go anywhere, to the point where I became very concerned that I would become seriously dehydrated. I hadn’t peed in the first six hours of last year’s race, so that was a prime factor in my decision to stop at the halfway point. I switched to a zero-calorie sports drink this year, thinking my stomach was not tolerating the sugary drinks as well as I used to. The switch was somewhat successful, but there was still too much fluid not going into the intestines and eventually into the cells to stave off dehydration. I slowed down to a power walk, hoping that would produce less jostling of the tummy and more hydration to the rest of my body. But, I only peed once, at the nine-hour mark. It was a reasonable color—not dark, but not light yellow either. Since I otherwise felt good, I continued onward.
One of the tests that I used to gauge my mental well-being during the race was to post updates of my performance on my Facebook page. If I started to stumble keying in the reports, that would be a sign that my psychological grip on my situation was starting to slip off. The Facebook postings also had a side benefit of receiving inspiring feedback from friends, to help keep me moving forward. I wrote posts every two hours, and had no problems doing so.
At eight hours, I had accumulated 25.2 miles. At 10 hours, I was at 30.8 miles. The sun was finally on its way toward sunset, after six hours or so of roasting anyone who chose to partake in an outdoors athletic competition. The shadows along the course delightfully lengthened to the point where there was shade with almost every step. I had trained many times on the treadmill to simulate the final two hours, and to push the pace toward an epic finish.
That strategy had to be muted, because of the ongoing stomach sloshing and the development of several blisters on both feet that probably made me look like John Wayne walking after dismounting from a horse. While I was worrying all day about the heat, I failed to take time to put ample globs of Vaseline on my feet and toes during the race to eliminate friction from my compression socks. Oh well, I was in such a great frame of mind that I put that problem on the back burner for after the race. The amended goal of 50 km (31.1 miles) was in the bag, and I posted on Facebook that I had an epic battle with Mother Nature…and I won. I was at the point where finishing the Flatlanders 12 was a sure thing, and that was cause enough for me to have a big grin on my face for the final two hours.
I resigned myself to walking the rest of the way, and cutting down on the ice water soakings to maximize what little time I had left in the race. Less visits to my oasis meant more visits to the aid-station oasis. I decided on one visit to drink just water, since the volunteers eagerly convinced me that the water was cold. I took two cupfuls and poured them in. All of a sudden, I felt fluid move from my stomach en masse for the first time since the early stages of the race. As if there was a bouncer in there that held the sports drink behind the velvet rope, while allowing the water to go into the nightclub. Understandably, I felt much better immediately, to the point where I could pick up the pace without the sloshing. Might as well try to get as close to the 40-mile original goal as I could!
The final hour was very satisfying. The runners and timers all complimented me on my effort and ingenuity, throwing out “You’re a rock star!” among other things. I felt more like Rocky Balboa who had taken the best from the menacing Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago, and pummeled them into submission. In my mind, I saw Mother Nature slumped on a stool in her corner of the boxing ring. After meekly quitting last year, I was ready to raise the title belt over my head in victory this year!
The final 20 minutes was spent scurrying over a 1/8-mile circuit, with a little flag that would mark my final victorious step. I planted the flag firmly and triumphantly when the final horn sounded amid the fading glow of a glorious sunset. I immediately thanked my Mom, Dad, Uncle Ed, and Aunt Dorothy for helping me through the day, and for everything they gave me during their lives. I got the feeling that they enjoyed watching me, even though they probably left shaking their heads and laughing, wondering why I would spend time running and walking for 12 hours, when that time could’ve been better spent fishing, golfing, or shopping.
My blistered feet protested loudly about having to carry my gear back to the minivan, even though it was less than 50 yards away, but I otherwise felt great. I felt even better during the awards ceremony, when I discovered that I covered a total of 34.48 miles in 95-degree heat. There was a brief moment when I scolded myself about finishing four laps away from reaching the original goal of 40 miles, but that was quickly erased when I discovered that I finished 18th out of 36 runners in the 12-hour race. I collected my silver medal for finishing with more than 31.1 miles, amid a nice round of applause. Then, in the surrounding darkness, I climbed into the minivan toward a post-race celebration at home, where a couple of king-size Budweiser cans and an Epsom salt bath awaited my arrival.
As I drove through the street-lit park, I smiled like Matthew McConaghey as he drives his Lincoln home from a classic night out, reflecting on the highlights of the evening. Billy Idol’s “John Wayne” popped into my head again, to remind me one more time that I lived up to the refrain of the song. I was not afraid, and I didn’t go down in flames. Nothing’s going to be the same, since I now know how to beat the heat. And, I can be an ultramarathoning version of John Wayne…at least for one day.
I yelled “OH YEAH!!” as I exited Fenton City Park for the half-hour ride home…