By Noah Davis
Not much about Phil McCarthy reveals he's a world-class athlete. You probably wouldn't notice him in the mass of humanity that is Bryant Park on a sunny, mid-summer evening unless you happened to be looking for him. But there he is, wearing a faded green-and-white-striped shirt and shorts, exactly where he said he would be at 5 p.m. He sits slightly hunched on a chair near the carousel, a massive backpack at his feet. He looks a bit like a Rick Moranis-type who spends time in the sun. Only his slightly-used running shoes hint at the strange discipline in which he excels.
From Aug. 4 through 10, McCarthy and more than 60 other athletes will run around a 413-meter track at the Alaska Dome, five miles from the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Six Days in the Dome bills itself as "the first competitive six-day indoor race" since 1994. The person who completes the most laps wins. The goal for race organizer and competitor Joe Fejes was to create a place to break both the official American record (554 miles) and the unofficial one of 577.75 miles, set by Stu Mittleman 30 years ago.
Welcome to the world of time-based distance running, in which races last anywhere from six hours to six days and sometimes even longer. While the discipline boasts a long history -- in the 1880s, tens of thousands of people packed Madison Square Garden for events -- it isn't as popular as the more traditional point-to-point ultramarathons. The races, especially the longer distances, appeal to a certain mindset, someone who can deal with the ups and downs -- and up and downs and ups and downs -- of going in circles for hours.
Each length has its own appeal. "Six hours is a really good community race," said McCarthy, a classically trained pianist who works in a print shop in Queens and happens to hold the American record in the 48-hour race at 257.34 miles (roughly 11-minute miles for two straight days.) "I don't like to chat but it's a short loop so you see the people over and over again. Everybody finishes at the same time, you have your party, and you celebrate.
"In a 24-hour one, you go through a dramatic arc. There's a lot of energy at the beginning. Then you get tired and start feeling things. Some people stop to rest. Some people pull out. Some people sleep at night, so it's quiet and it's relaxing. The sun comes up again. People wake up. People who were walking are running. You're so close to the finish and you get a new energy.
"Multi-day races are a whole other animal."
This brings us back to Alaska. McCarthy and Fejes are two of the United States' best time-based distance runners, and will be joined in Alaska by Brazil's Valmir Nunes (a former 100k record holder), Alaska's David Johnson (who won the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational), the United Kingdom's Sharon Gayter (a former World No. 1 in the six-day race) and Australia's Martin Fryer. There are also 10 runners older than 70, including an 84-year-old, who will contest the six-day event.
When it came to organizing a race, Fejes aimed for indoors to minimize variation and allow for prime scoring conditions, but also said he "really didn't want to run on a 200-meter track for six days." (Apparently, running on a 400-meter track wasn't quite as objectionable.) Running on most indoor college tracks was either cost prohibitive or impossible to book for six straight days, but there's little demand for running indoors in Alaska in August. The Dome was a perfect spot.
The sport is not a lucrative one. Fejes, who beat beat world record-holder Yiannis Kouros in a six-day race in January, gathered donations from friends and used his own funds to make the event happen. Registration costs $500; the first person to pass 600 miles wins a mere $1,000. "You pay money to do this sport, you don't make money," he said.
For the most part, runners stumble into the sport, which makes sense as it's a rare person who wakes up and thinks, "I'd like to run for the better part of 150 hours." Fejes, 48, wanted to lose weight so he did an ultra relay, then a 100-miler on his own, then a 24-hour race. He found he enjoyed running at night and that longer races yielded better finishes. McCarthy, 46, hoped to qualify for Badwater, one of the premier ultras, and a good time in a 24-hour race was a way in. He liked the pace of the event, and also got better as the races got longer. In April, 2013, he won the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 6-Day Race traveling 462 miles -- 24 miles more than the distance between Boston and Washington, D.C. -- in six days. (He took two weeks off after on the advice of Dipali Cunningham, a fixture on the Self-Transcendence winner's podium, and it was a full month before he "felt like himself again.") Six Days in the Dome will be McCarthy's second race of that length.
It's a solitary sport, because of a distance runner's mentality and reality. McCarthy frequently runs home from work, traveling from midtown Mahattan to Washington Heights, giving training a practical purpose. The timing of the red lights in Harlem make him run fast. He loves dodging pedestrians, fruit carts and the general chaos of Chinatown, too, the insanity giving him something other than the endless miles to focus on.
To train, each athlete averages around 70 miles a week and rarely more than 100 miles in a seven-day period. Over the Fourth of July weekend, McCarthy ran 25 miles on Friday, 35 on Saturday and 20 on Sunday, as part of his effort to go on long runs on consecutive days. Sometimes, he'll do multiple workouts in one day combining speed work or a hill workout with a 10-mile tempo run at a 7:30 minute/mile pace. "It's about keeping on your feet as much as possible and making running a natural state of being. It doesn't have to be fast but you have to keep going," he said.
After Alaska, McCarthy hopes to participate in the 24-hour national championship in Cleveland. He won there in 2009 (151.4 miles) and 2011 (153.37 miles) but hasn't had a good 24-hour race in a couple years and he's eager to break the 150-mile mark again. He might do another one in New Jersey come November, but the potential for cold temperatures at the latter race, which is outdoors, worries him, though its course is the same one where he set the 48-hour record.
First, however, Anchorage awaits. McCarthy and Fejes were ready to run when we spoke in late July. Fejes is aiming to travel 600 miles over the six-day period, while McCarthy wouldn't reveal his target mileage but admitted he "wasn't trying to beat everyone."
He did have what he hoped was a secret strategy. "I think I'm going to lay down a yoga mat and just sleep that way," McCarthy said. "[At the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence], a friend lent me a big tent with a cot. You would think it would be comfortable, but it wasn't. You're trying to turn and any kind of motion is just so painful. I think I'm better on a flat, hard surface. Just crash."
He continued: "I'm still figuring it out. The last time, I slept a little bit, an hour or two, every night. We'll see how this one goes. I think that I can adapt well on very little sleep as opposed to other runners. I'm going to see how I do on sleep deprivation. I might push the envelope a little bit."
He smiled mischievously, visions of ovals filling his head.
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