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The Woodside Bunch

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The Spirit of ’80 – 6 Day Race


By Jerry Dietrich in July 2010

7/4/80 – Woodside, CA

I will never forget the day I received an invitation to run in the first 6 day race held in nearly 100 years. The invitation came from Don Choi by way of my friend, Fred Nagelschmidt. Choi, a mail carrier from the bay area, had an established reputation as a world class ultramarathoner.

What is a 6 day race?, I wondered. I read Ed Dodd’s stirring account of 6 day racing in his book, Ultra-Marathoning The Next Challenge, and was fascinated.

In this amazing endurance contest, competitors circled around a track for 6 days and 6 nights. The race was go as you please. Athletes were allowed to run, walk, or combine a mix of both. They could take as many breaks as they needed. Scorers meticulously recorded the time for each lap completed. The winner was the athlete with the highest total of miles at the end of the six days.

Here is a brief history of the event.

In 1874, Edward Payson Weston, an American athlete, known for his ability to walk great distances, announced his intention to walk 500 miles in 6 days.  He did not succeed.

But his courageous attempt which totaled 430 miles enraptured the public and made him a famous name throughout America and Europe. It also signaled the beginning of a new kind of endurance contest – the six day race.

The 6 day race became enormously popular attracting thousands of spectators.  Winners of these races could expect to receive cash prizes of $10,000 or more at a time when a man’s weekly wages averaged 9 dollars.  Needless to say, the competition was fierce. A great rivalry developed between the United States and England.

Sir John Dugdale Astley, known as the “Sporting Baron”, was one of the foremost sportsmen of his time. He was intrigued by the 6 day races and particularly by Weston’s athletic ability and style. Astley decided to establish his own 6 day race.

Astley introduced a new element to the six day race.  As in the past, the race would be held on an indoor track with the competitor able to amass the most miles within the 144 hour time limit, declared the winner.

However, Astley added that the race would be “go as you please”.  No longer would a competitor be limited to walking.  Any pace or method, including running, would now be acceptable for this foot race.

As a flamboyant gesture, Astley commissioned artists to design the famous Astley Belt, emblematic of “The Endurance Champion of the World”. This remarkable trophy would be entrusted to the winner of the Astley Belt race.

The Astley belt passed from runner to runner, back and forth across the Atlantic, in some of the most challenging and dramatic sports competitions of all time. To retire the Belt and gain permanent possession, an athlete would have to win it in three consecutive races.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The belt was finally retired by Charles Rowell (pictured above with the moustache) He earned $50,000. An unbelievable cash prize! He became the Long Distance Champion of the World, and retired the most coveted trophy in the history of running, the Astley Belt.

Rowell competed a few more times and finally retired rich, after his defeat by the American, Patrick Fitzgerald, in the greatest six day race of all time.

Little was known about the old time runners and how they ate and rested during the race. We were entering the unknown, but were aware of certain dangers. We knew 6 day racing was outlawed in many states because of the brutality of the event. The strategies and plans used by the old time runners were closely guarded secrets. Today, each runner would have to develop his or her own strategy.

I could hardly wait to face the challenge. A friend loaned me his trailer and Fred Nagelschmidt and I decided to take turns sharing the accommodations. We set the trailer up alongside the track and pitched a tent nearby as well. Most of the other runners set up similar campsites. Two of the competitors rented rooms in a nearby motel.

Choi decided to name this event the “Spirit of ’80 6 Day Race”. Mona Nagleschmidt dubbed us “The Woodside Bunch”.

The 6 Day Race began at 2:00 p.m. on the 4th of July, 1980. Don Choi addressed the group of runners at the starting line. He stated a minimum of 300 miles was required to be considered a 6 day finisher. Imagine averaging 50 miles per day for 6 days. It seemed impossible!

Choi offered 2 shorter distance events which would run simultaneously with the 6 day. This increased the number of entrants at the starting line. Several entered the 100 mile event including future Western States 5 time winner, Tim Twietmeyer. He was 22 years old at the time. The only woman entrant, Karla Kraetsch, signed up for the 100 miler. I entered the 200 mile race. I didn’t have a well thought out plan. I just wanted to finish 100 miles in the first 24 hours. I planned to follow it up with two fifty mile days in order to score 200 miles in 3 days.

The Spirit of 80 6 Day Race – July 4th, 1980 – Woodside, California

The first 24 hours was not what I expected. The 90 degree July heat took its toll on many of the runners. The dropout rate was high. After circling the track continuously all day long, most of the remaining runners were resting. There was still a long way to go.

By midnight, there were only 3 runners left on the track. I found this was my strongest time. I felt a feeling of euphoria as I ran in the cool of the night. I began cranking out lap after lap. At 3:00 am, I was alone on the track and soon edged into first place.

When I saw Choi asleep on a concrete slab, I suddenly felt a tremendous feeling of fatigue. I decided it was time for a short nap. I awoke 5 hours later to the sound of cheering as Choi was completing his first 100 miles. I dragged my aching body back on to the track, and now in 5th place, began a shuffling walk.

Jerry Dietrich breaks the tape at 200 miles

 

It was no surprise when Choi reached 200 miles, still in first place with a comfortable lead. Nagelschmidt was in second place. I reached my 200 mile finish in 3-1/2 days. I stayed on to watch the conclusion of the 6 day race, regretting that I had not entered the full 6 day competition.

Collins and Buenfil had been running together throughout the race. In 3rd place, their strategy was to run strong during the day and repair to their motel during the night.

Before reaching the 200 mile mark, Buenfil received an emergency call and had to leave the track to work an 8 hour shift. When he returned, his chances of reaching the 300 mile minimum were nil. He rejoined Collins who was alone in third place. Choi had an insurmountable lead and Nagleschmidt looked solid in second. It appeared there would only be three finishers in the 6 day race.

As nightime fell (7 hours into the sixth day), Collins and Buenfil did not leave the track for their customary rest. Collins continued to pace Buenfil who, though exhausted from his workshift, ran without sleep, still hoping to reach the 300 mile mark. Around and around they went all through the night.

When I left the comfort of my trailer on the final morning (the race would end at 2 pm), I was stunned to see Collins and Buenfil still circling the track side by side in an unrelenting attack on the clock.

By running all through the final night and the next morning, Buenfil would miraculously reach 300 miles before the final gun. Collins, by virtue of the fact that he helped his running partner, finished in second place with 350 miles.

After 6 days and 6 nights, the race was finally over. The winner was Don Choi with a total of 401 miles. This made him the modern day American record holder.

The remaining results were as follows:
Second place – Dick Collins with 350 miles, the modern day American masters record.
Third place – Fred Nagelschmidt with 325 miles, an American record for runners over 50.
Fourth place – John Buenfil, with 300 miles.

The first 6 day race of the 20th century saw inspirational performances in heat of over 90 degrees on a dirt track in Woodside, California. Those who finished their respective races did so with courage, sportsmanship, and good humor.

                                “THE WOODSIDE BUNCH”

Pictured left to right – Don Choi (winner), Fred Nagleschmidt (3rd), John Buenfil (4th), and Dick Collins (2nd).

 

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