Crissy Field in San Francisco

My Longest Run

Michael Sunderland
Jan 17 · 5 min read

I have been intrigued by ultra feats of endurance, especially since reading Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Side note: both McDougall and myself are graduates of the same high school in Philadelphia, St. Joseph’s Prep).

I had run cross country in high school, but that was a while ago and probably the longest I have ever run is an 18-mile run through San Francisco culminating in a run across the Golden Gate Bridge. However, I have never run anywhere approaching ultra distances.

Nonetheless, I was hoping to mark the new year in some different way this year, so I signed up for Coastal Trail Runs New Years Eve event in Crissy Field right next to the Golden Gate Bridge. I signed up at the very latest time you could online, two days before the race.

I had run one race by Coastal Trail Runs before, a 10k the previous December in Fremont but had never signed up for anything quite so unique as the New Years' race.

I signed up to test myself, to see what I could accomplish without any clear clue about what was to come. The race format was unique: run a roughly one-mile loop as many times as you could for either a 6-hour, 12-hour, or 24-hour period.

My tendency as a runner or an athlete is always to go out as hard as I can, fueled by the energy of the beginning, and then to hit a wall and slow down as the event progressed.

However, for this race, I was determined to start slow and keep a steady pace throughout the race and try to do as little walking as possible. However, if I needed to walk the last couple of hours, then I was fine with that. Running over three hours was unchartered territory for me, and I had no idea what would occur.

It was a sunny, clear day in San Francisco. Before the race, I quietly observed the running culture that I was not too familiar with, and I was amazed at how many people had signed up for the 24-hour race, many of them not so young of an age.

As the race began, I started with a deliberately slow pace, running the first mile in a 10:42. Miles 2–15 were all under 10 minutes, with my fastest mile of the race coming in mile 9 at 8:51.

I came prepared with a variety of audiobooks, podcasts, and music ready to go when I needed it. I viewed this race as an opportunity to strengthen at once my mind, body, and spirit by not only running an amazingly long distance (for me) but also learning and listening to audiobooks.

For the first hour, I was so energized by the start of the race that I listened to nothing but the sounds of the runners going by, talking with each other, and the quiet of the morning.

Next, for the middle part of the race, I listened to an ultra-themed audiobook by Dean Karnazes called The Road to Sparta: Reliving the Ancient Battle and Epic Run That Inspired the World’s Greatest Footrace. This book gave me some history and motivation at once.

I next listened to a podcast from ultra-runner Rich Roll in which he interviewed Sanjay Raval, a director who created the film 3100: Run and Become, which explores the intersection of running and spirituality, as seen in such cultures as the Japanese Marathon Monks and Navajo Native Americans:

To run is to pray.

Find happiness through exertion.

Navajo Prayer

In the last hour of the race, barely able to move my legs, I listened to the Creed movie soundtrack, trying to summon the spirit of Rocky and Creed to motivate me to finish the race.

I tried to consistently drink water and electrolytes and eat steadily throughout the race; however, I, unfortunately, developed a migraine somewhere around my 12th mile.

I had a choice: stop the race, lie down somewhere, and dwell in the migraine, or take some medicine and try to keep going.

I decided to keep going and made my way slowly through the 6 hours, despite my headache, general sickness, and increasing leg stiffness.

I set micro-goals throughout the race: just get to 20 miles, longer than I have ever run. Once I hit 20, keep going until I get 26.2. Once I made the marathon distance, keep going until I hit 30.

By my GPS on my Fitbit, I ended up with 31.34 miles by the end of the race, and I only ended up walking at two points in the race: around mile 22 or so and in my last mile, when I knew I could complete this last loop but not another.

The official race results had me completing 27 laps for a total of 28.6 miles, so there is a bit of a difference between this and my Fitbit, but I am okay with that, knowing in either way I ran over a marathon and did the best I could do.

The race results had me coming in tied for 20th place among 65 runners for the 6-hour race. The top runner ran an amazing 44.5 miles in the 6-hour race, lapping me many times.

Even more amazing, the top runner of the 24-hour race ran 120.8 miles to ring in the new year.

I felt okay at the end of the race, but by the time I got home, I felt sick and unable to speak much or do anything. It took me a few days to fully recover.

I will look back at this race as one of the most difficult physical challenges of my life. I am glad I did it, but I have no idea if I could do it again.

Nonetheless, it was a unique physical and mental challenge to bring in the new year, a test of my limits as a runner and athlete.

Michael Sunderland

Written by

Oakland, CA. Teaching, learning, sports, and storytelling.

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