“There he is!”
From our vantage point, parked in the parking lot of an abandoned building on the outskirts of Terre Haute, Indiana, we could see a solitary figure come around the corner, stumbling slowly down the side of the four-lane road. Behind him crept a big RV, flashers flashing, as the morning rush hour traffic swerved and braked, trying to negotiate the obstacle in their path.
Their approach was painfully slow, and, as they came to the entrance to the parking lot, I started the motor, preparing to move down the road to wait for them to pass again. However, instead of going past, the miserable figure staggered into the parking lot, and the RV followed. Robert Young, the “runner” made his painful way to a grassy spot under a nearby tree and collapsed to the ground. The driver, Dustin Brooks, parked next to him and hurried over to see to his charge.
I shut off the car and Sandra and I went over to check on the RY team. Robert was a shocking sight. His face was covered with blood, and both eyes appeared to be black. While Dustin tenderly sponged the blood off Robert’s face, he filled us in on what had happened.
Shortly after we had left them at the last stop, Robert had just pitched face down, onto the pavement. By the time Dustin had exited his vehicle and rushed to Robert’s aid, he found his charge was sound asleep.
Robert’s face cleaned up pretty well. His eyes had not been black, after all. It was just blood. And, with the gore cleaned off, I could see that he only had a few small scrapes and cuts. Head wounds are known for bleeding out of proportion with the actual injury. Nonetheless, for the hundredth time in the past couple of days I thought, “This is it. He is done.” Robert’s eyes had the look of a cornered rabbit. And, he still had nearly a thousand miles to reach his goal.
But, I was learning not to underestimate the tough Brit’s determination. After a short rest, Robert somehow dragged himself to his feet, and set off down the road. The RV tagged along slowly, flashers blinking as it disrupted the early morning traffic once more. Sandra and I loaded up, and headed out behind them, passing the crawling Team RY on our way to find the next vantage point along the route.
How we had come to be sharing the intimate moments of a collapsing transcontinental run attempt was quite a story in and of itself. A month earlier, when he began this run in California, Robert Young and his transcon were not even a blip on my radar. I vaguely recalled having heard about some character who had set the “world record” for marathons (420 in 420 days, I now know) and something about another “world record” for running without sleep (377 miles). Frankly, such stunt runs are of little interest to me. They are not real records, and the feats themselves are both unverifiable, and unlikely to have actually occurred. When I saw some announcement about an attempt at the Transcon “record,” it was of no more interest than the aforementioned runs.
The first time I made any note of the goings on, was about four days into the attempt, when a tale came out about this (still nameless) transcon runner having gotten his support vehicle stuck in the sand out in the desert. Supposedly the runner had abandoned his crew and set off across the desert without aid, running an impossible time for about 40 miles…at the end of a 70 mile day. This wildly improbable story set a few tongues wagging among legitimate ultramarathoners. For the first time, Robert Young was a blip on the radar.
Over the next few weeks, the RY transcon turned into a controversial social media topic. It was not the enormous daily mileage totals that started being logged after the stuck RV incident that aroused suspicion, it was the photo ops. While submitting daily mileages in the 70’s and 80’s, RY was finding time to go gambling in a casino, lounge around the hotel pool, or take a side trip to the Grand Canyon. Video clips of him doing handstands in the road or dancing around performing tricks with a soccer ball outraged many experienced multiday runners. For people who had personal experience with running 70 and 80 mile days, the “Marathon Man UK” showed none of the telltale signs of high mileage. I have to admit, the antics grated me the wrong way, as well. I know all too well what it is like to run a multiday. There is only time to eat, treat physical issues, and sleep…and insufficient time for all of them. To many of the old-timers in the sport, the RY transcon was an affront to the serious athletes who had competed at multiday runs.
As the run progressed from the desert to crossing the mountains, the mileage totals only became more “outrageous.” At one point, RY claiming three consecutive days of more than 80 miles at altitude, with RY showing up in more and more mainstream media, looking for all the world like someone who had scarcely run anything. His margin for breaking the record began to open up.
By this point the battle lines were being drawn. With a few noteworthy exceptions, most experienced ultrarunners were on the side of doubt. The “Ultra email list” started lighting up with discussion of the attempt. The RY camp dominated facebook, and (apparently*) thousands of nonrunners and inexperienced runners posted messages of admiration. The two camps skirmished all over social media.
(*as it turned out, a large number of the “followers” were actually purchased from some sort of social media broker in Turkey, and were not real people at all)
One of the most vocal critics was a veteran multiday runner named Marcus Mueller, and my attention was captured when the RY team challenged him to come and observe the run for himself. Marcus responded that he had a job, and could not leave to join the run. The RY camp answered with an offer to “pay his way.” This offer was repeated several times.
At this point, I found myself getting involved. Up until the empty proposal to pay the expenses for someone who could not take them up on it, I was merely an interested bystander. I contacted Marcus, and asked if I could take his place. It was not that I had any desire to get involved, but I could do all my work on the internet for a few weeks. And it seemed like someone ought to go and put eyes on this alleged run.
Initially, the RY team was receptive. They had welcomed anyone to come and “watch” or join in. However, the few people who had done so, had only been around for a few minutes. For all the media visits, the run had basically been suspended while RY posed for photos and “running” footage. No one had yet seen anything of the actual run, except for the RY team. Marcus put me in touch with the RY team. However, when I expressed my intention to not just make a cameo appearance, but to come and shadow the run for “at least a week,” that contact broke off. I never received another response.
That might have been the end of it, except for the Ultralist. The Ultralist was aware of this whole exchange, and I found myself hit with a lot of offers. Many people said they would pitch in: $20, $50, or even $100, to pay for me to go and observe the RY run. Other veteran multi-day runners, mostly retired, offered to join me in the effort.
We quickly formed our own team with Bill Schultz (multiple 6-day veteran with a Transcon under his belt), Ray Krolewicz (multiple 6-day veteran), Mike Dobies (Joe Fejes’ multiday crew extraordinaire), myself, and my wife Sandra, and threw together a crowdfunding website. Our proposal was to meet the RY team, and to follow him 24 hours a day to verify that he was, indeed, running the mileages he was claiming. If he could match the distances he had “run” without observation while we were monitoring him, we would donate any excess funds to Robert’s charity. If he could not, the funds would be donated to MS research.
The old-timers on the Ultralist came through with flying colors, and we quickly accumulated enough to fund the trip. Then it was only a matter of arranging car rentals (who would want to drive their own car 100 miles a day at 6 miles an hour or slower?) and coordinating our arrival.
By this time, RY had come out of the mountains and was sizzling across the plains of Eastern Colorado. We would not all be able to get on the road until June 11. I was scheduled to attend the Run Under the Stars all night run in Paducah, Kentucky on the night of the 10th to the 11th. We were refiguring our extrapolation of the RY team’s location on that day every 12 hours, and it was steadily pushing further east. It appeared that he would be somewhere past Indianapolis before we could catch him. This would mean we could not have what had been dubbed the “Geezer team” in place until sometime on the 12th.
And then disaster struck the RY team in Kansas. On June 4, a Kansas runner by the name of Asher Dermott, decided to go out in the middle of the night, with the RY team passing near his hometown of Lebo, about 90 miles southwest of Kansas City. His original intention was to join Robert for a few miles, figuring Young would enjoy the company, running through the empty spaces of the Kansas prairie at 1:00 a.m.
What Dermott found was an RV driving down the empty road at about five miles an hour, with no runner in sight. After making several passes, and even stopping out of sight on side roads a couple of times to verify that there was no runner accompanying the RV as it went past, Delmott attempted to join the RV, to inquire about what was happening. The RV sped away, only to return later, and pick up where it left off. Delmott then made a video of the unaccompanied van as he drove past one more time. The next day, he posted that video, along with a short description of the encounter to a website called LetsRun.
There had already been much debate over whether the tracker that was providing the backup for the run was travelling in the van, or on the runner. Now, the detractors felt there was proof positive that the answer was both. All those ridiculously fast miles being recorded at night were courtesy of riding in the van at their best semblance of a runner’s pace.
The furor that erupted from the LetsRun video eclipsed everything that had come before. LR (who we came to refer to as the “basement dwellers”) is more typical of today’s online communities (I think they prefer to be referred to as “colorful”) than the relatively civil crowd that populates the Ultralist. The criticism and accusations that came from LR were not couched in any polite language. At this point, the debate began to spill over onto the official Marathonmanuk Facebook page, with defenders and detractors squabbling on every post.
The other effect of posting the video was a sudden decrease in mileage from the RY team. After blitzing across Kansas, just as he had done the states before, Robert’s pace plummeted by the end of the first day in Missouri. Instead of logging distances of 70 to 80 miles, the first day after the video posted, Team RY only logged 48 miles.
Along with the drop in mileage, there was a sea change in the media treatment of Robert Young after the video posted. The trusting acceptance of any claim, and photo ops (Team RY had wasted most of a day, the day before the video, posing for glamour shots for Sports Illustrated) were gone. Instead there were articles popping up everywhere online, to the tune of “Is this runner cheating his way across America.” It was a publicist’s nightmare. Even Team Geezer was being contacted by outlets like The Guardian (UK) and Runners’ World, seeking comment on the situation.
The distances continued to drop in subsequent days, and Team Geezer began moving the rendezvous point back. From nearly-to-Ohio, the anticipated meeting point moved back through Indianapolis, and across Indiana towards Terre Haute. By the time we actually met Team RY, they were barely into Illinois from Missouri.
Ultrarunning is the perfect sport for people who like numbers. And the numbers began to grow ominous for the RY record attempt. At the point when the video came out, the daily mileage required to break the record had dropped to around 50 and was still going down. With RY no longer even getting 50 miles in a day that number began to grow again. As the number of days remaining diminished, the effect of a shortfall was magnified every day.
By the 11th, the RY rendezvous point was almost directly above Paducah. Rather than needing an entire day to catch up with Team RY, we were close enough to pick up the run on the morning of the 11th. Bill Schultz had been able to adjust, and would be there to take the handoff from us at noon, so we would have coverage a day earlier than we had first expected. Ray and Mike would arrive a little later, but we had enough on hand to start the effort.
In planning how we would provide round the clock coverage, we had broken ourselves into two teams. Sandra and I would be in one car, and dog RY from midnight until noon. Conveniently, the all-night run in Paducah gave us a one day head start in adjusting our sleep cycles. At noon we would hand him off to Bill and Ray in another vehicle. Then we would go rent a room with two beds as soon as rooms became available, get our sleep, and head back out in time to relieve Bill and Ray at midnight. They would be able to sleep in the same room for the second half of the rental period, and leave in time to relieve us. Mike was a swingman, able to cover any gaps that might come during shift change. My job was to estimate how far ahead to go for our room, so that we would be as close as possible to where RY would be at midnight, and shorten the driving time for the changing of the guard.
The other aspect of planning was less certain. We had still heard nothing from Team RY, although they certainly knew we were coming. They were very much engaged in the ongoing social media war, and our imminent arrival had been much discussed. Monitoring a run like this would be a very different animal, if Team RY considered us to be enemies. Although it was made clear from the beginning that we were not going with any agenda, except to see for ourselves what was actually going on, and the Geezer fund had received donations from both supporters and detractors (each certain that we would find exactly what they believed was happening), that did not indicate how Team RY would perceive us. If they welcomed us as independent proof of their verity, our job would be simple. However, in the absence of communication, we were prepared for anything, including outright antagonism and them trying to give us the slip. There had even been speculation as to whether Team RY could call the police to have us removed.
Sandra and I left Paducah on the morning of the 11th. After all the waiting, it was a relief to finally be headed up to intercept RY. His pace had slipped even further the last couple of days, and our intercept point turned out to be much further ahead of him than we expected. We had not wanted to risk getting behind him. The tracker map, which was supposed to show his location at all times, had been performing erratically since the video came out, sometimes appearing to sit in one place for an extended time, then jumping far ahead. As it turned out, the RY express had ground nearly to a halt, only notching 31 and 30 miles the last two days before Team Geezer arrived. There was some speculation on social media that RY was resting up for the arrival of the Geezers, although that does not seem likely. We had deliberately not announced when we would be joining the show.
Initially, it had been our intention to arrive unannounced in the middle of the night. Based on the available data, we suspected that the miles were being logged riding in the RV late at night. We expected to either come upon RY tooling down the road at 5:30 or 6:00 per mile, as was being claimed, or to find a van driving slowly along with no runner. Dermott’s video changed all that. There had not been a single big mileage night since the video was posted. Daytime mileage had increased slightly, but that was not enough to compensate for the missing nighttime splurges.
When we came to the transcon route ahead of RY, we were still some 40 miles or so ahead of where the tracker showed them, on US40. After having been stationary for a while, it was moving again. The drive back was on a road that seemed ideal for the purpose of the run. It was flat, with light traffic, as it paralleled the interstate, and had a good shoulder.
After a time, we came to a place we turned off. The RY route had gone north of St. Louis to cross the Mississippi. We had pretty well established where we were going to meet the RY team. They would be a few miles short of where the road we were on crossed the interstate heading north out of St. Louis. We had some concern that we might not recognize the RV, as we expected to encounter it parked alongside the road, waiting on the runner, as is customary for people doing long runs on the road with a crew. We had only seen the back end of the vehicle in the Dermott video, and had still not had any communication from the RY team. Concerns over missing RY were unfounded, as we were soon to find out.
Our first encounter with the RY team will be forever emblazoned on my mind. Even though it was only midmorning, the day was already blazing hot, with that special kind of heat that lives near major waterways. Not a cloud in the sky, but with tremendously high humidity, it was a heat that felt like it was cooking you in your own skin. The flat, straight road with light traffic ended at the interstate, as the road picked up a heavy flow of fast-moving traffic at that point. Less than a mile past the interstate, the road entered a series of steep hills and began curving and winding its way through. I had to concentrate on the driving, while Sandra scanned the roadside for the RV we expected to see parked and waiting…
And then we saw them. Our first warning was the flashing of brake lights ahead of us as we rounded a blind corner at the bottom of a hill. The cause of the brake lights came into view. A big RV was stopped in the center of the road forming a huge traffic jam. A lone figure, that turned out to be RY, was standing beside it, looking confused. As we approached slowly, the figure climbed into the RV (Were we about to witness them riding at our very first encounter?) Then that figure climbed back out, followed by a tall younger man. Then we were past them.
We had decided to scope out the situation before introducing ourselves. Possibly we might monitor them surreptitiously for a time. The decision had been made for us on that first pass. There had been no way to stop without turning a dangerous situation only more dangerous. Clearly, the route had not been adequately scouted, as there could not have been a worse section of road for that vehicle to accompany a runner.
We pulled off on a side road to discuss the best course of action. There seemed little purpose in maintaining secrecy as to our presence. With RY now only moving at 30 miles a day, it was fairly certain that there was nothing untoward going on. And their current situation begged for assistance. I felt like if we informed them that the traffic and hills both ended in just a couple more miles, the RV could drive ahead, leaving the runner with a lot easier task to negotiate the traffic without the huge tie up and congestion…I did not yet fully understand the workings of the RY team.
We drove back up the road. RY had gotten over the hill where we first found them, and was on his way up the next. The RV was creeping along, blocking traffic in its lane, while Robert, breaking one of the basic rules of safety, was walking steadfastly uphill on the opposite shoulder, forcing all traffic from both directions to pass between them. The tall guy (Sponsor representative Michael Speicher) was ahead at the top of the hill, warning oncoming traffic and attempting to direct it through the bottleneck below.
We made our way through, and then drove ahead to the bottom of the next hill, where there was a pullout, and I started running back to meet the RV. I met Robert partway, now walking on the right side of the road, in front of the van. I would soon become familiar with his constant switching of position on the road. RY is not a “blue line” runner, and wasted untold distance with the endless lateral movement. Robert attempted to shake my hand as I went past, and said something I did not understand. I went on and jumped in the passenger door of the RV, hoping the action would not frighten the driver. I quickly told him “I am here to help.” I went on to tell him I was with the Geezer team to provide independent verification of their run, and that the traffic and hills ended at the interstate in a couple of miles. Then I hopped out and ran back to the car. The whole exchange took less than a minute. We quickly drove on up the road to remove at least one vehicle from the chaos. On the way, Sandra told me that Robert had also stopped and shaken her hand. The words I had not understood as I went past had been, “Thank you for coming.”
I would find out that Robert was almost painfully polite. To be honest, when everyone said he was “a nice guy,” I was expecting con-man nice. Con man nice is being charming, disarming, and feigning interest in the other person. Con man nice is smooth and practiced. Robert Young was not what I expected. He was painstakingly polite and concerned that the needs of everyone around him were attended to. At the start of every shift, Robert had to ask if we needed anything to eat or drink, and assured us that anything we required was surely available in his RV. Part of our selection of places to stop became avoiding anyplace it was convenient for Robert to stop to perform a welfare check. We did not want the Geezer team to be in any way detrimental to his performance.
It took Robert until past noon to make the last few miles to the interstate, and he then went directly to a motel. He was not planning to return to the road until 1800 hours (6:00 p.m.). 1800 hours, it turned out, was really the beginning of RY’s running day. In theory he would start at 1800 and run until around 1500 the next day. At that point, he was supposed to take his big break. In reality he was hard pressed to make it past noon. And he took numerous smaller breaks in between. However, the one reliable, consistent landmark in his day was starting at 1800. This was an important point for evaluating his performance from day to day. The first day of the Geezer team had marked the RY team’s best output since the video came out, with 50.6 miles. This was still short of RY’s needed daily average, and his goal slipped a little further away.
We drove ahead and got a room at a motel we believed the RY team could be near by midnight, and took our first sleep, leaving Bill to follow their progress once the RY team returned to the road.
It seemed like no time before we were calling Bill to see where we should meet him for the midnight shift change. He was at the edge of a place called Greeneville, Illinois. Robert had covered around 20 miles before retreating to the RV, and they were about a half mile up the road from where Bill was maintaining his vigil, sitting still, with all the lights out.
We swapped out with Bill, and began the process of learning just what a stakeout was like. For a little over two more hours, we sat in the dark keeping each other awake while we waited on signs of life from the RV. It was surprising to see so many hours of cool, prime running time wasted, when the days were so punitively hot.
Eventually we did see headlights coming slowly down the road. It was the RV, Dustin at the wheel, with Robert walking slowly alongside. After walking a couple of miles, RY broke into a run, quickly picking up the tempo to around 6 minutes a mile. This was what we had come to see. The storyline from the big mileage days was that RY had ripped off long stretches of miles at a fast tempo, interspersed with long rest breaks. Conventional wisdom was that this was a suicidal approach to multiday running. True, some of the best runners’ approach was to run “fast” for long periods and then rest. But not at under 6 minutes a mile. It looked like we were not going to have to wait to see RY’s stuff. Instead of moving ahead to wait, we fell in a little ways behind the RV to watch Robert run.
And run he did. He bounced up and down like a superball as he motored along at 6-minute pace or better. We logged one “odometer mile” at 5:47. He was also all over the road: running on the opposite side of the road, then in front of the van, then on the passenger side, talking through the window. He dropped back behind and wiped himself down with a towel that was hanging from a ladder on the back of the RV and pulled a water bottle out of a cooler stashed in a small compartment on the back, and then would return to the driver’s side window to talk some more. It certainly did not resemble any multiday running I had ever seen before.
The frenetic pace did not last long. Within two miles, he stopped at the RV and came back at a slow walk. He did return to running shortly, at almost the same pace, but this time lasted barely a mile, if that, before stopping and walking. He did this three or four more times, and then went into the van for an extended break. I was hardly surprised. The running he had been doing amounted to mile interval training. Interval work is not the best choice for logging big miles.
After that, most of the rest of the day was spent walking. He ran some, at a more typical multiday pace. Most notably, Bill came out and ran a mile or so with him as he passed the motel where we had taken our break the previous afternoon. The day turned blazing hot once again, and as we were preparing for shift change around noon a local woman stopped to offer a place to sleep at her place a mile or so further up the road. The RY team took her up on the offer. Robert had covered only 52.7 miles on the day, well short of what he needed to average to finish with the record. The daily minimum distance he needed went up once more.
With RY down for the day, the whole Geezer team was able to eat together and discuss the day, before Ray and Bill went out to pick up with the RY team at 1800, while Sandra and I got a room 20-something miles up the road in Effingham to grab some sleep.
This would be the most dead-on stop of the entire trip, as midnight found the RV parked only a few blocks from the motel. Once again, the cool running hours of darkness were wasting away while Team RY slept.
We were getting a good taste of the excitement of a stakeout, as we did not get to sleep. There was no choice but to stay awake, and keep an eye on the RV for any signs of life, so that we would be ready to go when they did. Sometimes one or the other of us would have to ask the other if they were good for a while, and close our eyes for a short nap. But most of the time we found salvation in a most unlikely source. The Lets Run posts on RY would not ordinarily have been something either one of us would read. The targets of this social media assault were real human beings, and the commentary was at times vicious and unwarranted. However, being right there on the front line, actually seeing everything that was going on, and then reading the sometimes wildly inaccurate speculations on LR kept us in stitches through some long and boring hours.
Once the RY team was in motion, we were not able to fall into a comfortable routine: driving a set distance and waiting, then repeating. Although it was unlikely there was going to be any monkey business going on, with so much scrutiny now focused on the attempt it was more or less an obligation to mix things up. Sometimes we just drove a mile or so up the road and waited. Other times we drove just out of sight, then parked out of sight of the road until we saw Robert and the RV pass. Sometimes we waited while Team RY moved on up the road, and then drove past after some random interval. There were even times that we drove up the mile, and then one of us would walk back along the course and then hide behind a tree or building to wait for them to pass. Mike added a true random factor: not being attached to either team, he not only filled any gaps in coverage, he was apt to come driving past the RY team at any time. There was no way for them to know when they would be observed.
It made me feel sort of silly going through all that subterfuge. Spending all those hours when our car and the RV were the only things on the road, it was impossible not to feel like a part of the attempt. And there was no way not to like RY, who was unfailingly concerned throughout our time together, that we had enough to eat and drink, and were as comfortable as we could be (given that we were spending 14 hours a day in the front seat of a car… most of the time parked). But, if we were to provide a credible audit of the mileage being claimed, we were obligated to make it nearly impossible to cheat.
When the lights finally came on in the RV, with yet another huge chunk of cool nighttime lost, Robert came out and hit the road in recognizable multiday running style. He walked resolutely, and mixed in some decent stretches of running at a measured pace. There were no crazy mile interval sprints, and he took fewer breaks. And, while he did not entirely abandon his peripatetic ways, RY spent long stretches just running and walking either in front or behind the RV.
Back to back 50+ mile days had taken a lot of starch out of Young, but he approached this day with a sort of grim determination. Having lost ground despite a couple of solid days, the attempt was coming to a make or break point. He had to make his daily minimum today, or else it was going to be out of reach…if it was not already.
It was a long, long day. The route we were following, old US40, was the first federal highway, originally built to carry pioneers to St. Louis, as a jumping off point for the long trip West. The little towns we passed through along the way had seen much of our history. Countless Americans had passed this way on their way to a new life. Old 40 had seen the advent of the automobile and some of the first gas stations. It had even seen Bill Schultz’s transcontinental run a few decades ago. Traveling at three or four miles an hour, we had time to see a lot of fragments of history along the venerable old highway.
At one stop, in what had once been a waystation along the road, where now there was only a cluster of dilapidated old buildings, I was taking a few pictures when RY came up. I pointed out the old buildings and the historic nature of the road he was on. ”I bet you have gotten to see a lot of cool places along the way.” “No…I haven’t gotten to see much of anything. There has been too much of a hurry to look.” Then his face brightened. “Except the stars in new Mexico. That is the most beautiful thing I have seen… I will never forget the stars in New Mexico.”
I was carried back many years ago, to memories of spending nights in the New Mexico desert, and a star-filled sky so magnificent that it seems no life could be complete without seeing it. And, at that moment, I felt a connection with Robert from that shared experience. At the same time I felt a profound sadness that he had missed so much in this quest for a record. And a tinge of guilt, that my presence there was probably destined to turn out to his detriment.
The Geezer team had come with the intention of making certain we did not interfere with Robert’s performance. But we are human. When the heat started really cranking up again, I could no longer stand to see him running in the hot shirts he was wearing. He had been outfitted by the run sponsor, and I am sure he had much better gear than I own, but it was ill-suited for running all day in the blistering heat. I rummaged through my bags and found him the best hot weather shirt I had, and told him to periodically stick it in his cooler to get wet. He would wear it in the heat of the day for the rest of his run.
The sponsor rep was a little concerned. Robert was supposed to wear the clothing they had supplied. I told him that it made sense to wear their clothing every time the cameras were around…and, certainly he should be wearing it when he entered Times Square. But, when the only witness was the merciless sun, he needed something that would not cook him in his own skin. Times Square seemed a long way away and the numbers that we were seeing every day made it seem highly unlikely that victorious entry would ever occur.
That night Ray would help him with a little shoe surgery to relieve the pressure on his painful feet. The RY we had seen in the photo ops had been replaced by the familiar spectre of the multiday runner. It was what I had come to see, but there was little joy in it.
Following RY had become a lot more challenging. The RY team was working the maps hard, looking for every possible shortcut, routing him straight through the small towns, rather than looping around on the bypasses. They were cutting off a mile here and two miles there, but it was clearly not going to be enough. The attempt had seemed doomed from the first day we arrived, and every day the odds against success grew larger. But the RY team continued the futile struggle.
Shortly before our shift ended, someone drove up and stopped to see RY, right where we were parked, waiting on him to pass. The spectator wanted pictures, and in true Robert Young fashion, he brought the man over to our car so we could be in the pictures together. It was a bittersweet moment. Robert was so happy, wearing my shirt and having our pictures taken together. I was fairly certain that the “fan” was actually one of the LR people, and our mission appeared certain to turn out poorly for RY.
We left to get a room in Terre Haute and get some sleep. The RY team stuck to the road, although Robert appeared to be very nearly spent. They were determined to get 60 miles on the day (they would end up with 58.7). We went to bed wondering if there would still be a run to follow when we came back at midnight. Again.
If it were not for the cell phone, this whole project would have been much more difficult. The first thing we did each night, when we awoke to go take our place, was to call and pinpoint the location of the RY team. In selecting our motel each day, we tried to estimate where Robert would be some 12 hours later, in order to shorten the drive for each team during shift change. We were already spending a lot more time in a car than any runner ever wants to experience.
Our call on this morning produced a surprise. Robert was not directly above our room in Terre Haute. He was far to the west, still in Indiana. Mike told us that there was “no reason to hurry.” After moving extremely slowly for a few hours the previous evening, the RY team had holed up in the RV once more, and was showing no signs of movement.
Once again, we found ourselves sitting on the side of the road watching a dark and lifeless RV while the cool nighttime hours whiled away. There is a tremendous variation on how multiday runners fare when it comes to sleep. Some are capable of scarcely sleeping at all. Others simply need more sleep to remain functional. Some can readily switch their circadian rhythm to run all night, and sleep during the hot parts of the day. When the early reports on the RY crossing alluded to him sleeping only three hours a day, this was met with disdain by many. It seemed entirely believable to me. When their big mileages were reported in the night, this was also not a surprise. Nothing about the running pattern that was reported created suspicion in my mind. It was the ridiculously fast times that were being turned in, and the general appearance of someone who was not doing many miles that raised my eyebrows. Now that we were eyes-on, a lot of questions were coming. The Robert Young we were watching was requiring a lot of sleep. He seemed unable to function overnight without long sleep breaks. Despite the awful heat, Robert was only getting effective running in during the day…and after only three 50-mile-plus days, he looked to be at the end of his tether.
Mike had been right. There had been no reason to hurry. There was no movement in the RV for several more hours. At one point a light had come on inside, but it was quickly extinguished. I wondered aloud if someone had gotten up to see if we were still there parked across the road, watching like vultures. Relations between the two teams had remained cordial throughout, but the constant watching had to be getting old.
When Young finally emerged from the camper, he was a shocking sight. No multiday runner has ever appeared more shattered. He hobbled a few mincing steps, then went back inside. A short time later he came back out. His appearance was no better than earlier, and he was not moving any more effectively, but he started off down the road anyway. I had an involuntary mental image of the RY team forcing him back out onto the road.
The road ahead was narrow and undergrowth extended right out to the road surface, so we had to travel a mile before finding a place where we could stop and wait. And wait we did. 20 minutes passed, so he was not doing 20-minute miles. Nor was he doing 30, or even 40. After 45 minutes, we finally saw headlights far away, flashing through breaks in the foliage. At the rate the headlights were barely advancing, it could be nothing except the RV following Robert.
It took a full hour for Young to cover that first mile. He did not appear to be warming to the task, but we went up another mile anyway. This time he ripped off the distance in about 40 minutes, but he was struggling when he finally came into clear view. A mantra that had begun to run through my mind during the low points of the past few days was in full chorus now. “Pull the plug. Pull the plug. Pull the plug.” It had been increasingly apparent with each passing day that the expedition was doomed to failure. To continue just seemed like heaping abuse on Young’s shattered body for no good reason. Whatever had gone on out West, there was no denying his sheer toughness, and I hated to see him suffering needlessly.
This time, we opted for the “wait and come past at an unexpected time” approach. No matter how pointless, we were obligated to maintain the same standard with our vigil. Just before it would have disappeared around a bend, we saw the RV pull into a convenience store. So we drove on up and pulled in an empty parking lot next door to wait. There was a sense that the whole thing was unraveling before our eyes. We fully expected them to “pull the plug” at any moment.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, we saw the brake lights flash as the RV was started. Instead of the expected appearance of RY, we saw the van take off down the highway at a high rate of speed. I was not sure what to do. Had they pulled the plug, and were now trying to rid themselves of us? I followed just to see what came next. The RV could hardly shake our fancy rental car.
Shortly, we came on Robert, still shuffling along beside the road. Apparently they had stopped at the store while he went on. The RV pulled in behind him and turned on the flashers once more. Terre Haute’s morning rush hour was in full swing and traffic immediately snarled. It was one of the amazing things about this whole experience. The RY team was absolutely imperturbable when it came to creating a road hazard. Robert wanted his crew vehicle right beside him at all times, and there were virtually no conditions under which they were not willing to be there. I saw the police stop them several times on my watch, and each time through went to talk to them, the RY team was eventually left to continue unhindered. Dustin must truly be gifted with a golden tongue.
We squeezed past just like everyone else, and found an empty parking lot just around the next bend where we could stop behind a sign, out of sight. This was where Robert turned up with the bloody face, and we thought (for the hundredth time) that this had to be it. Looking at RY sitting there on the ground, having his wounds tended, his eyes almost seemed to be pleading with me. I remember feeling that way during multidays… “kill me now!” However, my multidays experiences had never risked anything greater than a result that would only ever have personal meaning. Given the situation, Robert’s career as a stunt runner could well be on the line. We had ample time during our watch to monitor social media, and Robert’s supporters had been dwindling since the LR video was first posted, and his performance during the tenure of the Geezer team was doing nothing to improve the situation. Criticism and attacks on the running sites had risen to a crescendo, and his few credible supporters in the ultrarunning world had dropped off one by one, reaching the inescapable conclusion that his early performance in the transcon, indeed all his rather tenuous credentials, were not legitimate. Even his own MarathonmanUK facebook page was more criticism than support. The RY team, undoubtedly now overloaded with just keeping Robert viable, had stopped posting to it.
The day was a nightmare for all involved. Somehow Robert stayed on his feet and kept moving, all the way through Terre Haute. He even managed to jog a little here and there. Most of the day was just a death march of the sort that every ultrarunner dreads experiencing (although we all do at some point). Heavy thunderstorms for much of the morning assured that even the Team Geezer observation vehicle would be a miserable place to be.
When the thunderstorms finally passed over, things only got worse. The heat returned full force. And it now had an ally in the large quantity of water that was steaming up out of the ground and off the road surface in the blazing sun. It might have seemed, over the past few days, that it could not possibly get any hotter. It could, and it did. Team RY called it a day before our shift even ended. Robert had managed to accumulate a meager 39.5 miles. We started making mental plans for the trip home. It did not seem possible that anyone could come back from a day like this one.
Amid speculation over whether there would be a midnight shift at all, we got our one meal for the day. As it turns out, there is never a chance to get a meal during the stakeout. Certainly there is adequate time to do so, but you never know how much time you have until the time has passed. Something could happen at any time, and you simply have to be waiting. Then we went to bed.
When we got up, a quick phone call assured us that the RY team was on the move again. I congratulated myself on having chosen the motel wisely. Robert was almost directly north of our location. This would be the only night that Team RY was on the move when we arrived. If there was one thing that proved out as advertised, it was Young’s remarkable recuperative powers. He was actually moving fairly well and had his best outing we had seen through midnight. He was not moving as fast as during the 58 mile day two days earlier, and we had not seen a 6 minute mile since that second morning, but it was not the death march that we had witnessed the day before.
A few miles later, we entered a long stretch of more than a mile with no good pulloffs. We finally located a good place in front of a large barn and settled in to wait. Time passed. The RY team came due and there were no lights in sight, much less the flashers of the RV. We could see the road, almost back to where we had last left them. Finally, we decided to drive back and locate our quarry. They had driven just past the crest of the last hill and pulled over to the side of the road about 50 yards past a nice parking lot at a Dollar General. The lights were all off. So we returned to our good vantage point.
We read all the LR postings and everything on the MarathonmanUK Facebook page. I got out and walked around the barn. We took turns getting in short naps. We even went back to check on the RV one more time. It still sat there, dark. Robert never did run effectively at night during our entire tenure. He just could not stay awake.
Twilight finally came, and I saw that there was one of those “roadside memorials” directly across from us. I went over to check it out. Ominously, it was for a pedestrian fatality. Team RY would have been better served to have gotten as much of this road done during the night as possible. Traffic, including lots of big 18-wheelers, was picking up fast. Not that this would bother Team RY!
Just before dawn, Robert finally got back on the road and we picked up with our routine as he slowly made his way towards Indianapolis. Yesterday’s run had been a catastrophe for his chances, pushing his minimum daily mileage up to just short of 60. This had become a make-or-break day, as another shortfall would simply leave him with the need to cover more miles per day than he had shown the ability to cover on any day. While we did not confer on this, it seemed that Team RY understood the gravity of the situation, as Robert was pushing hard all morning.
One consistent theme in conversations with Robert was the big mileage day. With the other two, it was the elephant in the room—an uncomfortable, but obvious topic that we never directly addressed. We had originally said that we came to see one of the big 6-day totals that Young had claimed to be logging out West. Considering that he had claimed to have a 500 mile 6 day stretch, the 400 we were asking to see was not extreme. It was, however, even more obvious that sort of total could not be possible until there was at least one of the 70 or 80 mile days that had fallen end-on-end prior to the LR video. Robert was direct about it. “I know you want to see a big mileage day. And, I promise there will be one before you leave.” All promises aside, it had come down to now or never.
One parameter had already changed. The big mileage days reported before had been constructed from some ridiculously fast splits. 2:30 marathons and 1:15 halfs, punctuated with rest breaks. We had seen nothing like that during our week with the RY team. After demonstrating the ability to run at or near that speed for single miles— with the sort of devastating effect that common wisdom said would result—the best results Robert had produced had been constructed from the same sort of running that traditional multiday runners rely on.
All through the morning, Young had moved strongly, walking and running at a controlled speed as he closed in on Indianapolis. Both Team Geezer and Team RY had building anticipation about what Indianapolis would bring. We had been warned by everyone that the chosen route of US40 through Indy was a poor choice. Team RY was desperately seeking an alternative route to pass south of Indianapolis, to no avail. They even asked me to look at the maps and see if I had any ideas. There were no good options. After paring off every possible mile for the last two days, they were too far committed to passing right through the center of Indianapolis. All potential southerly bypasses would entail adding back far more miles than had been saved.
As we came into the outskirts of Indianapolis, we came to a construction zone several miles in length. Traffic was reduced to a single lane, and fresh hot asphalt promised a special treat for poor RY. He would have no choice but to go without his crew vehicle for several miles, and with the additional heat and the aroma of fresh asphalt. We drove through to the other side and parked in front of a fast food place to await his emergence.
Robert came through in decent time, but clearly the additional challenge had taken something out of him. And now the traffic situation was such that even Team RY was forced to move up the road a mile at a time and look for places to park and wait.
It was during this section that we had our second visitor. Once again, we suspected (correctly) that it was someone from LR out to have a look at our hapless runner. This time our visitor came prepared to run, and in true RY fashion, offered to carry her water bottle for her. To the LR runner’s credit, she soon recognized that Young was in worse straits than she was, and she took her bottle back. Once again, Robert brought his “fan” by for photo ops, which turned up on the LR site.
Whatever the motivation, the visit from the LR runner provided the last surge of the day for Young, and brought him close to the interstate ring around Indianapolis. Our shift came to an end soon after RY passed under the ring and entered the center of Indianapolis. I noticed one difference before we headed out: Young had developed a limp when he walked.
Following our daily meal, we went to the motel and checked the internet tracker. To my surprise, Robert was still on the road, but had made very little progress since we left. The RY team had sworn to get at least 60 miles on the day (there was little choice if they wanted to keep the remotest hope of reaching their goal alive), and they had appeared well on the way when we left.
The RY team had been caught in a death spiral since we arrived. Unable to make the mileage they needed each day, the next day they needed more. One thing that had worked against them was the stubborn refusal to rest when Robert became so fatigued that he was unable to move effectively. I had talked with both Michael and Robert the day before about the simple math involved. When Young was reduced to one mile an hour, they were better off to rest. Four hours at one mile an hour only gained them 4 miles. If RY rested for three hours and was able to come back with a four mile hour, they would be at the exact same place, except Robert would be rested. At the end of the disastrous 40 mile day yesterday, Michael had prevailed on the others to retire to a place where Robert’s legs could be iced down. That had paid off with a solid start to today, but it was not enough to keep the death spiral from closing. If Robert stopped at his normal resting time, they were still going to be short of the mileage they had to have.
Refusing to stop until they reached 60 miles today was a futile gesture. It took until the beginning of the next daily cycle (1800 hours) to get 60.6. While they had held their ground for a day, there was no possibility of repeating that tally again, entering the next day totally spent, and moving at only one mile an hour. Mathematically it was over.
Following our daily meal, we retired to the motel room (not very far up the road this time) and I went on the internet to check the RY tracker. I was twice surprised: first, to see how little distance had been covered since we left, and second, that they were still on the road. It was hard to figure exactly what was happening. The run for the record was already a lost cause. Robert had been almost totally destroyed by the run by the time we left Team RY to the second shift. It was hard to see any outcome for the night, except to go down in flames. I sat there watching the slow, stuttering crawl of the tracker across the map. It would sit in place for a long time, then move a small distance before stopping again. Sandra kept telling me I needed to go to bed, and I kept answering that we were not going to be returning.
Thus it was, that I was watching, when the tracker finally made a definitive move. I immediately called Bill, who would be waiting for them somewhere up the road. “Do you know what is going on? The tracker just left the course and is moving north at driving speed.” “No. We’re just waiting about a half mile ahead, for them to start moving again.” A few minutes later Bill called back. “Well. We know where he went. The tracker is in the parking lot of a hospital.”
The next hour was a long one. I won’t deny that we came expecting RY to fail under scrutiny, although we would have been equally satisfied to be able to report back that he was indeed capable of the sort of mileages he had claimed. It was never our intention to push him to physically damage himself.
We finally got a report back from the guys on the front line. Robert had some damage to the bone in his little toe, along with cellulitis. Cellulitis is a rather innocuous sounding name for an infection which has potentially serious repercussions. Robert Young’s transcon attempt was over.
There was one last thing to attend to the next morning. The RY team was holed up in the RV, sitting in a parking lot, deciding what to do next. I really wanted to just start home, and not stop to see them, as my final report would not be favorable to their claims. But, that seemed the coward’s way out, so we did stop to see Team RY one last time before heading home.
According to the Geezers who had seen him the night before, the toe had only appeared red and swollen. It looked pretty nasty the next day. Rob was still set on finishing the run, although he acknowledged that the “record” was no longer a possibility. I had my doubts that the sponsor would be inclined to continue supporting the run at this point. They had been taking a beating in social media, and the media which had taken everything at face value through much of the run had turned skeptical after the release of the LR video. That final meeting was still on friendly terms, although I did state that I could only report on what I had actually seen. I am not sure what Team RY took that to mean.
In short form, the report I had to give was that we had seen nothing that indicated RY was capable of putting out the performances that were claimed for out West. He had logged supposed six-day stretches end on end that were in excess of 400 miles, ranging up to 500. During the five days that Team Geezer observed him, Rob had netted only 262 miles. That extrapolates to a 314 mile 6-day run. Talent evaluation is, of course, highly subjective. However, that would be around the total I would expect from Robert, based on having watched him run. And he would not have been capable of matching that distance again, whether his toe had gotten infected or not. He looked like a relatively fresh runner the day we arrived, and after five days of running, looked very much like any other 6-day runner…totally spent. He seemed to be able to handle 50 mile days without excessive damage, but anything over that took a heavy toll. And, most damaging to his claims, he appeared to have great difficulty staying on the road overnight, despite that being the time period when his massive mileage was supposed to have been logged. Even though the nights were relatively cool and ideal for running, and the days were brutally hot, while Team Geezer was watching, RY logged most of his mileage during the day.
I would like to acknowledge some people who provided valuable assistance over the internet. John Wallace kept me up to date on the daily required mileage for the record, updating it each day. He also broke down the daily mileages into the rather nonstandard 1800 to 1800 totals that matched RY’s running day. Without that information, it would have been impossible to see the end approaching. Case Cantrell provided about any other analysis I could think of, a lot of which was valuable in matching the pattern of running from the west with the pattern of running Young evinced while Team Geezer was observing. The long, extremely fast stretches followed by rest periods that were supposedly recorded out West would have generally been expected to destroy a runner. The explanation for them was that Rob was somehow “different” than other runners. During our observation, there was only one attempt to replicate that pattern. And, based on my observation, it seemed to have exactly the effect it would have had on anyone else. His most successful days were produced by running exactly the same way as multiday runners have always run.
Case also produced for me the graph which, in my mind, exposed exactly what transpired. He took all the reported mileage available and matched it with sunrise/sunset charts in the locations where it was recorded. The graph has two lines, one for daytime mileage and one for nighttime mileage. Daytime mileage was consistent from the beginning of the attempt until the end (except for the day that was spent making pictures for Sports Illustrated). The nighttime mileage, after the first day when the attempt started after sunset, began very low. It then leaped to a very high mileage at the time when RY began recording mileage sufficient to break the record, and stayed that way until the runnerless van video was posted on LR. It then returned to the low level at which it had begun, and stayed that way until the end. I think there is only one possible conclusion to draw from looking at that graphic representation. The Team Geezer observations dovetailed with that explanation perfectly. If the LR video was the smoking gun, the day/night graph was the DNA.
I sent an email to all three members of Team RY, telling them that I was open to giving their side of the story. Only Dustin Brooks responded. He was positive about telling their side of the story. However, when I told him that I thought it was necessary to explain at least a few of the anomalies—in particular the “stuck RV” incident, where time-stamped photos showed Robert with the van, and then at the motel an impossibly short time apart, and the remarkable coincidence that Robert’s daily distances dropped by half exactly the same day that the LR video of an RV with no accompanying runner was posted. Dustin’s answer was that they stood by all the data presented as is…and for me to make no further contact with him.
I will end this with a few observations on the subject of a transcon attempt.
Many of the “record” transcon attempts of the past have faced varying degrees of skepticism. This is for good reason, as they were only marginally documentable. The technological capability of today, in terms of validating a performance, is truly remarkable. While I still believe it would be possible for a team with both a technical member to produce the faked data, and people with multiday experience to create a data base to build that faked data from, it would be very difficult to do so with a pre-announced attempt. Since the exact location of the runner can be made available over the internet on a realtime basis, a single random person coming out to observe could blow the lid off the whole scheme. It really appears that this is what happened to the RY attempt with the LR video.
Clearly, anyone wishing to make a transcon record attempt in this age of technology will need a technologically competent person on their crew. Guinness World Records’ documentation requirements might be minimal, as Team RY seems to have relied on those being the only requirements they would have to satisfy. However, social media stands poised to deconstruct any careless attempts.
Planning seems to have been the weak link in several recent transcon record attempts. Team RY consisted of only two people besides the runner. Both were marketing-types. Had Dustin responded to my inquiry by saying that they had simply done a careless job collecting data, there were only the two questions left—the impossible distance between two time-stamped photos, and the sudden elimination of nighttime miles following the LR video. Even the video could have been challenged, because Team Geezer saw firsthand how difficult it was to spot RY at night, as he ran so close to the RV, and in so many different places. As we witnessed, having a social media expert on the team was of little use once the sharks started circling.
Here are some considerations, which, based on what we saw, I believe are necessary for any future attempt to take into account:
- Scout the route. It would not be unreasonable to drive the selected route in advance. The transcon attempt needs to be certain that all bridges allow pedestrian crossings. Constricted roadways and heavy traffic need to be taken into account. In some cases, it needs to be ascertained whether the road can be traveled in the support vehicles, or even if the road exists at all.
- More than one vehicle is almost an absolute necessity. One needs to be accompanying the runner, but another would allow for scouting the road ahead for construction zones and other unforeseen obstacles, shopping, doing laundry, securing rooms if necessary, and other sundry tasks. The RV, doubling as roadside sleeping quarters as needed, is a solid idea. But having only one vehicle leaves the attempt subject to catastrophe in case of a mechanical breakdown…or getting stuck in the sand.
- Adequate personnel. Team RY consisted of only two people in addition to the runner. One of them had only joined the team immediately before the attempt began. Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of Team RY was covering as much ground as they did with inadequate sleep, and in sometimes miserable conditions, without killing one another. Perhaps the biggest thing in their favor was, after the trouble began online, they had to feel like three men against the world. A good crew for a transcon should include, in addition to someone with technical expertise for all the monitoring equipment: a couple of drivers for the vehicles, at least one “trainer” qualified to patch up the inevitable injuries, as well as keep the runner properly fueled, hydrated and equipped; and a team captain to coordinate the attempt and make decisions when issues arose. The presence of a marketing or social media expert would be optional.
Anyway, the final chapter of Team RY remains to be written. While no record claim was made, the entire episode received too much attention to ignore the controversy. The sponsor went from supporting their representative without reservation, to stating that an independent evaluation of the data would be performed before its release, to announcing an independent “investigation” would be undertaken. The results of that investigation are supposed to be released in August.
Then the final chapter of this saga can be written.