By John Goralski
Bill Schrlau snapped awake at the sound of approaching footsteps, and he stumbled forward in a daze like a sleepwalker jerked into consciousness.
Almost every distance runner can relate to the frequent stabs of pain that come with every step on swollen knees and ankles. Marathon runners can certainly understand the uncomfortable waves of nausea that sometimes sweep across the body, but even the hardiest Iron Man competitor would have to admit that sleep deprivation is a challenge that they’ve never had to face.
For an ultra-marathon runner like Schrlau, it’s just one more obstacle in a relentless 24-hour race that can push athletes over 100 miles in a single day.
“My eyes started to get heavy and close,” he said. “I couldn’t fight it. My head was nodding off, so I was actually falling asleep while I was running. Luckily, I was able to get some more caffeine in me, but it took about 40 minutes for the caffeine to take hold.”
On Friday, July 25, Schrlau was among a list of 75 athletes to challenge the 24-hour event at the 18th annual Ultra Around the Lake race in Wakefield, Mass. Schrlau began running at 9 p.m. on Friday, and went non-stop until the following night. By 9 p.m. on Saturday, Schrlau had completed more than two marathons, and his 67.468 mile distance was enough to capture 17th place at the event.
“You’re running with the lactic acid in your legs. Better put, you’re running on tired legs…a lot,” he said. “The most difficult session is the night section. I usually start out running 20 minutes with 5 minutes walking. I try to keep that up as long as I can. When it doesn’t work anymore, I try to change the strategy.”
It’s hard to believe, but Schrlau’s efforts fell significantly short of his 102-mile goal. That’s because, in the days leading up to the race, he was unable to train on solid ground when a calf injury forced him off the road. In the early hours of the race, his lack of training took its toll as Schrlau battled through an intense nausea that kept him from replenishing his body with nutrients.
“You’re burning about 7,000 calories over the 24 hours, so you have to try to consume some of those calories back just to keep going,” he said. “With my stomach issues, I couldn’t eat anything. I was sipping on Coca Cola just to push forward.”
Still, Schrlau pushed through. That’s because it takes a lot more than a debilitating leg injury and an unsettled stomach to stop an ultra-marathon runner. Throughout the night, he continued to endure the series of sidewalks, paths, concrete, and access roads that circle Lake Quannapowitt. When dawn began to break, Schrlau was still running.
“I did pretty well considering that I hadn’t done any road training over the last nine weeks,” he said. “I have a calf muscle that acts up every once in a while, and it got to the point where I could not run during my last nine weeks of training. I’ve been in the water for the past nine weeks, pool running. I’ve read a lot of research, but there’s only about eight weeks of research without losing speed, endurance, or stamina.”
The charity event, benefitting the Rabb Clinic at the Children’s Hospital Boston and the Wakefield Educational Foundation, welcomed over 300 athletes in four different races. On Friday night, Schrlau started alongside a group of 163 marathoners and almost a dozen 4-to-6 man relay teams. By 3 a.m., the marathon runners had all finished, and the 3-mile loop around the lake was peppered by a handful of diehard runners.
On Saturday morning, he was joined by more than 70 runners in the 12-hour event. Soon after, it began to set in that Schrlau might survive the ordeal.
“It was a whole new batch of runners in the morning, but your number bib indentifies you as a 24-hour runner,” he said. “The interesting thing is that that next batch of runners begins, and we’re only moving at about an 11 mile per hour pace. But when those 12-hour runners hit their first six hours, they began to get extremely vocal when they passed us. You began to feel like a rock star because I think they finally got it at that point.”
Schrlau is no stranger to distance races. He has been running since his 20s around Buffalo, N.Y., and the 45-year old Southington resident plans to continue to push his limits in the upcoming months. He has a 50-miler planned for October, and he plans to make another run at 100 miles at a winter event in January.
Would anybody care to join him?
“A lot of people say, ‘No. there’s no way that I could ever do that,’” he said with a laugh. “I would have to disagree. I think many of us could do it. It’s just a question if we would want to do it.”
It isn’t for everyone.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.