60 Miles at 60 Years

Written by San Francisco Bay Area trail runner and personal trainer Robert Zunino.

We have all been affected by the pandemic. Since March 2020 we’ve been relegated to our homes. Many of us have been training for scheduled races only to have the races we’ve been training for get canceled.

I’ve been a runner since college. It grounds me and keeps me sane. I mostly run solo but once in a while enjoy the company of a couple good running buddies. I have run a bunch of marathons, completed the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim and a handful of ultras, the longest was a 50-miler 5 years ago.

This fall, I was turning 60. For many years, I had been thinking that a great way to celebrate my 60th birthday would be to run 60 miles. My new goal was a little intimidating, but I was excited by the challenge and the idea of marking my 60 years with something so meaningful to me.

Conveniently, I found an organized trail 100k close to home and registered for it. Two months into my training, the race got canceled. I took it a little hard and lost some of my motivation to put in the training needed for a 100k run. I was still running regularly but had reverted back to my standard running schedule rather than doing any specific race training. About 6 weeks before my birthday, I was still fixated on the idea of running 60 miles for my 60th birthday.

I started entertaining the idea of a self-supported solo run and decided that a paved trail called the Iron Horse Trail (pictured top of page), which runs from Pleasanton to Concord, California, could be my solution. It runs 27.7 miles in one direction so by adding a little extra, I could make it 60 miles. With only about 1,000 feet in elevation, it was a much more attainable goal since I was in no way trained to run 60 miles on the trails I had originally registered to run.

I had my concerns. Would I have the motivation and energy to complete a self-supported run without the cheering crowds and buffet tables that come with organized ultras? Part of me liked the idea of doing it all alone. I would have my wife and two daughters meet me at the turn around with a light lunch of soup and to replenish my water and food for the second half of the run. Could I do it? The longest run I had completed recently was a 24-mile trail run two and half months earlier.

I planned for October 10th. I kept my plan pretty quiet because I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself. Two weekends earlier, I did two 15-mile training runs on the trail to get familiar with it. I told myself, “I can do this if I pace myself.” Then I told myself, “I’m not sure. The trail is mostly exposed. The temperature the weekend before had been really hot.” I checked the forecast a few days before my anticipated run and it was supposed to be a perfect day. Partly cloudy, in the mid 70s, perfect. My informal goal for finishing was 12.5 to 14 hours.

The night before, I prepared my gear and exchange gear for my wife, along with detailed notes including specific order:

  1. Have chair ready
  2. Ibuprofen
  3. Soup
  4. Fill water bladder, etc.……we ultrarunners tend to be a little obsessive.
60 Miles

I woke up at 4 a.m. Had my oatmeal with peanut butter and water and visited the bathroom (TMI). The drive to the start was 30 minutes away. I had some water, a gel and 2.5 ounces of pickle juice (I think I am a believer) 15 minutes before my start. I got out of my car and right away I needed another bio break, found some bushes (again, TMI). It was nice and peaceful at 5 a.m. I put on my gear and decided to run the extra miles before the start of the trail rather than at the end of my run. I ran four miles before the official start of the trail. I had to do another bio break, not normal for me. I am a…do it twice before a long run kind of guy (ok, again TMI).

The run started well. I felt good with my pacing, all was going well. It was nice to be the only one on the trail. A lot was going through my head. So really, why did you want to do this? Can my body handle running over half of the day? My nutrition and hydration plan has always been for long runs, one gel every half hour, 16ish ounces of water mixed with endurance fuel and electrolyte tablets per hour and a half PB&J sandwich (crunchy of course) every 2.5 to 3hrs. And 2.5 ounces of pickle juice every three hours. The sunrise was around 6am and that is when I saw my first signs of life on the trail. People walking their dogs, morning walkers, bikers, and other runners (all passing me).

The trail runs through five towns, so visibly there were a lot of distractions and a big plus, I could stop in a store and get some different food if I needed to alter my nutritional plan. Legs were feeling great but at around mile 12-13 my stomach started feeling queasy (I have never had stomach problems on a run in my life). A lady on the trail yelled out, “how long are you going today?” I responded, “the plan is 60 miles”. Not feeling too confident at that time. Going through my head was what my younger daughter said the night before, “Daddy, I know you can do this.” I did not want to disappoint her. My stomach was not feeling good, I was getting cold sweats. At that point I was just thinking, get to the half away point and call it a day. Convincing myself that would also be an accomplishment (but in the back of my head I would have been highly disappointed).

How was I going to try and turn this around? Plan B. Which I was trying to figure out while suffering through mile 12,13,14 and 15. I changed to 1 gel per hour and I drank some pickle juice. Within 20-30 minutes of drinking the pickle juice and decreasing the gel intake I felt 100 percent better. Thinking went from, I hope I make it to the halfway point, to, I will definitely finish the 60 miles. My trail running partner wanted me to check in with him while on my run. My first check in was after I was feeling much better. It was nice to check in with him every now and then. The weather and temperature could not have been better.

I was about one hour to the turnaround/exchange. I called my wife, letting her know it was time to leave and get to the meeting place. As I arrived at the turnaround, about half quarter mile away I could see them. I waved my red bandana/mask so they could see me. I then saw my two daughters sprinting towards me, part of me wanted to sprint as well but I remembered that I still had around six more hours of running left. The exchange went really well, as meticulously planned. I did not know hot soup could taste so good on a warm day. After about 8-10 minutes I had to get going again. My daughters wanted to join me for a few minutes. As we left and started running they said, “Daddy this is really slow.” I did not let that ruin my confidence and laughed it off. They stopped as I continued on and for a long time, they just stood there watching me run away yelling and repeating, which must have been at least 8-10 times, “Daddy, I love you.” I will take that over any ultra buffet or crowds cheering.

The legs kept clicking off the miles. My body works through little aches and pains but nothing to stop me from finishing. PB&J’s were not sounding good on the way back, so I made a brief stop in a deli for some potato salad. I forgot to apologize to the people in line, I must have smelt real bad. I was beginning to realize that I had seen the sunrise and now the sun is beginning to set and all I have been doing is running the whole day, pretty cool. About ten miles to the finish at around 5:30 p.m. I saw a lady enter the trail with her children and she almost stopped me to say, “ I was out here at 7 a.m. going on my morning walk and I saw you running and you are still running.” I replied, “Yes, it’s been a long day.” Her comment helped me push through the final miles.

As the sun went down it was time to put back on my headlight. My pace had picked up the last 25 miles by about 45 seconds per mile faster. I was going to finish this, no doubt about it. Now the trail, like early in the morning at the start, was almost empty and here I was still running. I had about two miles to go, and picked up the pace again. Got to what I thought was the finish, turned right to run back to my car but in the dark things sometimes do not look the same. Realizing I made a wrong turn I headed back and found the correct route. I finished with no fanfare, no cheering crowds but that was ok. I was in my own space feeling very proud of myself. It ended up being 60.14 miles, 13:40:24. What I learned from this run, is the body is an amazing machine and I think sometimes being mentally prepared is almost if not more important than being physically prepared.

The 30-minute drive home almost felt harder than the run. I got home, stumbled out of the car, opened the front door and the house was filled with the smell of a nice meal and 60th birthday decorations everywhere. Thanks guys and happy birthday Bob.