“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.” -unknown
I am in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France watching the foreboding dark sky make lakes in the hotel parking lot. It is two days before the IAU World 24 Hour Championships where I will be taking a third crack at the classic and grueling 24-Hour ultramarathon event.
As I watch the large drops pelt the ground, I prepare my mind for what it will be asking my body to do in less than 48 hours. Of course the obvious question is “why?” Or at least that is what most people ask. Running around a 0.7 mile loop for 24 hours is hard even for an avid runner to comprehend. If you ask ultrarunners and those who follow my running career you would get a slew of answers. Some would say “He’s got to show us he still has it.” “He’s in a slump.” “He hasn’t won a major race since ’08.” “He’s gotta keep winning, keep inspiring.” or “Is he still running from something?”
Although those questions I shrug off, the thoughts that do go through my head are the recent loss of my mother and how I will run in memory of her. When the discomfort and fatigue become unbearable I will run because I can.
But the reasons go deeper than that. On the surface I have always had both intrigue and distaste for the 24 Hour ultra discipline. It is very similar to other ultramarathon events. The requirements on the body, mind, and soul to “go beyond” are really no different. But there appears to be something that puts a different twist on what I normally have come to expect in an ultra. Like James Shapiro, the 24 Hour “seemed like the perfect tool to pry me open and see what I am made of.”
Take away the mountain passes and wildflowers, take away the point to point course and goal of a destination, and I am left with a 0.7 mile path and the movement of my feet.
I have the utmost respect for my buddy Mark Godale’s eleven year old US 24 Hour Road record of 162 miles and the legendary Yannis Kouros’ world record of 180 miles. Following my winning performances at the Spartathlon, I started to think that I might have what it would take to break Godale’s inspiring record. Even though I preferred to head to the mountains, the US 24 Hour Road Record remained on my checklist and possessed an element of intrigue despite having raced ultras for sixteen years. It was the one way to see how I stacked up against the legends of the sport.
After pulling the plug at the Ultracentric 24 Hour in 2008 due to a non record breaking course and the Northcoast 24 Hour in 2009 due to not being recovered from the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, I decided that the 2010 IAU World 24 Hour Championships in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France would be the place to fully embrace the challenge of the 24- Hour.
The 1.25 km (0.78 mile) course of pavement and dirt was full of tight “Formula One” turns.
We line up in the city center and as we wind through town a Spaniard is leading the pack. My pace starts out a little bit fast before I get into a rhythm which is hard to do with 229 starters bunched up in groups around the course. I feel light and fast on my feet, and wonder if the Brooks Green Silence would be too little shoe for the mileage that lay ahead.
The first three hours go smoothly, clicking along at a 7:00/mile pace. Lee Dong Mun of South Korea blows by me around the marathon mark along with Shingo Inoue of Japan a few laps later. The course twists and turns over a mix of pavement and hard packed dirt with two hills that add up to 10 feet of elevation gain per 1.25 km lap. Not the perfect world record course, but one that will poke and prod us along like voodoo dolls.
I decide to hold off on music for the first eight hours, saving it as a special treat when the night will set in. The next six hours becomes a schedule of eating, drinking and running. I pass through the mat and timing building, 6:15, 6:20, 6:15, and lap by lap it goes on. Darkness sets in and I put the tunes on. The music takes the edge off the pain and the repetitive cycle I have put myself in. Shingo holds a couple lap lead, and I let him go. Maybe he will crack and a lot of race is left. I will run my race.
By 12 hours, I curse the monotony, but I knew that this would be part of the journey. I am reminded of what my yoga instructor “Big Bill” says with booming certainty as I struggle to hold a pose, “This is what you came for.”
As the night hours wear on I feel an electric energy when I run by dancing and partying spectators cheering on runners in the timing building and outside along the parking lot, and from the locals imbibing at the pub adjacent to the course, yelling enthusiastic encouragement and occasionally drunken jeers. At other times a stillness and loneliness exists on the far reaches of the course with only the sound of the river massaging the rocks, the wind combing the leaves of the trees, and the birds welcoming a new day.
More running, eating, drinking goes on as my laps slow. I continue to run with no walking for 16 hours. I don’t puke, roll on the ground in pain, nor have to leap over rattlesnakes (although I make 6 trips to the bathroom). But I face the hardest mental and spiritual challenge in my career. There are times when I don’t even notice what music is playing on my iPod, what my crew says to me as I run by, or what the other runners say as I pass them in the predawn hours. The great Kouros has described being out of his body and looking down at it while churning out his record performances. I don’t know if I see my body, but I seem to be somewhere else.
Sometimes my senses are so attune to taste, smell, touch, and sounds, while other times I am totally immune to what information they try to bring in. In some ways this is better. A certain comfort exists in not knowing what my body is sensing.
If the other ultramarathon events require razor sharp focus, the 24-Hour requires laser sharp focus that is almost supernatural, not manmade. The Samauri called it “Bushido”and yogis refer to it as “Sankalpa.” I summon my bushido and sankalpa and hunker down in a rhythm that will propel me into the morning light. The darkness is lonely, but I trust in the light ahead. I keep repeating, “This is what you came for. This is what you came for…”
I think of my mother who had almost every voluntary function of her body stripped away at the prime of her life. She never complained and even on her last day as I held her and saw the fear of death in her eyes she whispered “I’m tough.” My mother inspires me to live in the moment, and find joy in the challenging times. And so I press on.
As the dawn approaches and the sun rising, I know I am still on pace to break the American record with a little cushion. Team USA coach Mike Spindler does a great job of giving me splits and lap counts the last five hours. As I come closer the record, the announcer keeps the growing crowd of spectators updated on my progress as I approach the 162 mile mark. Even other runners are now yielding to let me pass as they cheer “Allez, Go Scott! U-S-A!”
As I pass through the aid tent on the record breaking lap, Team USA coach Roy Pirrung hands me an American flag which I proudly hold overhead as I cross the mat making it official. I feel honored to be running for my country. In the final hour with the clock winding down, several runners are hoisting their national flags as proud representatives of this world class event.
My crew runs out to cheer for me on my final lap. When the clock hits 10:00 am Friday morning, an official is there to mark my final distance on the course. In some ways, it is anticlimactic because everybody doesn’t cross a common finish line. But there is still something special about making it to each of our own final finishing marks. My mark is 165.7 miles and it is an incredible feeling to finally arrive.
In the 24-Hour there is no finish line, just a moment in time when the mind will let the body stop. Just like all ultras the 24-Hour is analogous to life. In life there is no finish line. We all need to keep living, exploring, moving forward, despite what life delivers, to the moment in time when our body and mind let go.
Turns out Shingo was on a mission of his own. He broke the Japanese 24-Hour record by a mere 300 meters. The third place finisher, Ivan Cudin also broke the Italian national record, making the top three men new national record holders. Anne Cecille took gold and set an astounding French national record of 149 miles, just missing the world record.
Team USA men placed third for the bronze medal with a heroic late surge and PR by Michael Henze and a solid PR performance by Serge Arbona. The women’s team placed fourth lead by Anna Piskorska, Deb Horn and Susanna Bon.
I want to thank my all star crew, my teammates, Team USA staff, the IAU, USATF, Brive-la-Gaillarde race committee and my sponsors. Last but not least, I want to thank Mark Godale for setting the bar high and inspiring me to raise it a little higher.
Some say, “The Jurker is back” but I say I never left. We usually don’t know why, nor maybe never will, but in the moment may we know that THIS is what we came for!