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Last year, I paced E in the JFK50 – his first 50 miler. We ran together from Weverton (mile 15.5) to Taylor’s Landing (mile 38.4) along the C & O canal towpath. It was inspiring to run part of this historic ultra marathon and watch E finish strong, especially after witnessing some very low points on the canal.

At the finish, my in-laws asked me if I ever wanted to run an ultra. My response was, “NO WAY!” I love to run long, but running 50 miles was incomprehensible to me at the time. And of course here I am, one year and three ultra finishes later…

The JFK50 was a very last minute addition to our Fall race calendar. E and I had just run the UTHC 65k when we met several legendary endurance athletes (NESS at Princeton) who inspired us to search for another ultra challenge. Sure enough, registration was still open for the JFK50. E wanted to give the course another try and I felt (falsely) confident after having run for nearly 11 hours in Quebec. Also, the NYC marathon would be a great training race. E mentioned that we were already kind of trained for it, so why not? (WHY NOT RUN A 50 MILE RACE?!) “Sure,” I said, “why not?” And maybe now you can see how I started running ultras!

We got to the Homewood Suites in Hagerstown late-afternoon to pick up our bib numbers and prep our gear. Strangely, I wasn’t nervous – perhaps because I had already convinced myself that I probably wouldn’t get very far. This is NOT the usual attitude I have in a race, but I had to manage my expectations.

I felt great during the NYC marathon but got some bad right foot pain out of nowhere while walking in flip flops two days later. It turned out to be a cuboid strain and although the pain resolved just before the race, I was cautioned not to run through the pain if it returned, as I could risk a stress fracture. Obviously it’s inevitable to feel some pain with races of this distance, so I would have to differentiate between “bad” pain and more general foot pain. I remained optimistic and grateful to be starting, and told myself that I would run as far as I safely could with E, whether it was 4 miles, 24 miles, or longer. Sounds like a simple plan, right? Run smart, and and if/when the “bad” pain comes, don’t risk injury for the sake of finishing. Got it.

Clearly I forgot that I am a very stubborn person who has never DNF’d and hates quitting. And that the mind and body play tricks on you and hinder your judgment when you have been running for hours and hours. But more on that later…

Gear-wise, I decided not to carry my bladder, which ended up being the BEST decision. This race is incredibly well supported, with 14 fully-stocked aid stations every 2-6 miles! Two 9oz bottles proved more than adequate. It felt great not to have all the weight on my back, and also gave me tons of room in my UD vest to store gels, food, extra layers, and other items. I wore my breathable 2XU compression tights, my favorite Patagonia tank, a very thin North Face long sleeve shirt, my Brooks ultra light shell, Injini socks, Lulu hat, merino wool gloves, and my Brooks Cascadia trail shoes.

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THE START (Miles 0-2.5)

We missed the pre-race talk due to trouble parking (it gets REALLY crowded) but had plenty of time to hit the restrooms and warm up in the Boonsboro Educational Complex. Around 6:45am, we headed back out into the cold and towards the start line in downtown Boonsboro. I had the strongest sense of deja-vu – but this time, I had my own hydration vest and would not be going back to the hotel for a nap! We timed it perfectly, approaching the start just as the gun went off. We were running before I even had a chance to realize the race had started! The 50 mile race. MY FIRST 50 MILE RACE. Nope, still not registering, still fully in denial.

I felt surprisingly awesome. It was a gorgeous Fall day. The air was crisp but our bodies quickly warmed up as we climbed the first of many hills. Everyone around us was walking, but we kept running at an easy effort level given there were much steeper hills to come that would demand walking. I soaked up the atmosphere, that feeling of embarking on a great adventure with hundreds of other race participants (quite a lot for an ultra). The AT and canal would soon spread us all out and turn chunks of our race into quieter, more solo endeavors.

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THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL (Miles 2.5-15.5, paved road miles 3.5-5.5)

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the AT and was slightly nervous about how my foot would handle it. E and I did a fair amount of training on the AT in NY and VT over the summer, on trails that were very technical. E told me it wasn’t quite as challenging, though last year fallen leaves weren’t covering the trails, which included many long, tricky sections of jagged rocks. The leaves camouflaged the rocks while also making them slippery. Bad news for my foot if I wasn’t careful!

We were barely on the trail when we were spit back out onto pavement. THIS was the hill E mentioned earlier – long and steep. We power walked along, joking and chatting with each other and our fellow runners. That’s one of my favorite parts about trail running – you always get to interact with interesting people. We overheard pieces of a story that a man (in the army or navy?) was telling his friend – something about traveling to various places around the world in search of a resupply but never getting one, and being without any real food except for rice and a few canned goods for 70-something days. Well, then running 50 miles should be a walk in the park, right?! I reminded him of this when we ran into each other later in the race and he wasn’t feeling too great!

We soon rejoined the AT, and the leaves and rocks demanded all of my attention. I still felt good, but feared that with any next step the foot pain would return. Sure enough, my foot rolled on a rock around mile 5 and I felt the first pang of pain. Shit. I had more than 10 miles to go on this terrain! It felt fine as long as I landed flat, but every time it rolled – pain. Not terrible, but not good. With concentration, I was able to minimize the number of times I rolled my foot, but the terrain made it impossible to avoid. E was far ahead of me at this point, as I had slowed down to focus on my footing. Thankfully trail runners are friendly, and I met a lovely woman from South Dakota who helped the miles go by.

I feared the 1,000ft descent to Weverton that E had warned me about, but it wasn’t that bad. A few sharp turns, but otherwise quite runnable as long as you don’t get stuck behind a conga line of walkers (you can’t easily pass on this section). I was so happy when I reunited with E at Weverton – I managed to survive the AT relatively unscathed! Plus, a long flat section awaited us – much better for my foot – and we had plenty of wiggle room with the time cut offs. I made this handy wrist band to make sure we didn’t get pulled – highly recommend!

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THE CANAL (miles 15.5 – 41.8)

Hitting the canal together was a joyous moment. My foot felt okay, the sun was shining, the canal was peaceful, and I was running on a familiar trail with my favorite person. I knew I couldn’t get my hopes up, but I was still in the game and I would continue running as long as my foot didn’t hurt with each step. Or so I told myself. We were running around 11-11:30min miles, nice and relaxed and feeling strong.

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Cut to 10 miles later….get me off this canal! It was beautiful but felt endless. Also, all the foot problems really started at this point. My  right foot started to hurt with each step at around 26M. We were practically wading through the leaves on certain parts of the trail and I had to stop several times to get the leaves and rocks out of my shoes. I love Injinji socks but mine were too low cut. In an effort to keep stuff out, I tied my left shoe laces tighter and miles later, the top of my left foot started to hurt too. I knew I couldn’t run another 20 miles feeling like this and contemplated dropping at the next aid station at mile 30.

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But then our friends unexpectedly showed up at mile 30! Look at those smiles! We stopped for a few minutes and my spirits were uplifted. The aid station was Star Wars themed – this race truly has the BEST aid stations. Not only are they frequent, but the volunteers are also incredible. I forgot about my feet and after saying goodbye to our friends, we went along our way.

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Until we were alone again on the canal and…oh yeah, my feet still hurt. I decided to keep running until the next aid station at mile 34 (Christmas cookies!), and reassess there.

Okay, cookies eaten, said hi to Santa, I think my feet are feeling better? (NOT REALLY NO. LIAR!). My pace started to drag. I decided to continue until mile 38 and then pull the plug – had to get to the red velvet cake 38 special!

This is the point at which I realized I could not be trusted. “I’ll just run until the next aid station” became my equivalent of “I’ll just eat one more cookie.” Continuing to run didn’t seem to be doing much damage at the time – until the pain felt magnified by the time I reached mile 38. I knew I could keep running and finish this race if I really wanted to – but at what cost? It wasn’t worth it.

I was grateful to have made it so far, and now it was time to face reality. I stuffed a piece of cake into my face and told E to finish for both of us. We moved past the aid station and I watched him run ahead until he eventually disappeared. My vision of us finishing hand in hand, experiencing victory and celebrating our teamwork as we did in Quebec was shattered. I was surprised by how upset I was, overcome with feelings of defeat and being left behind, even though I knew that this moment would likely come. I couldn’t help but become invested in this race. I was only 12 miles away from my first 50 mile finish!

Running was off the table, but walking wasn’t quite as painful. I wasn’t sure if I should turn around and drop out (what the “should” voice told me to do) or give myself a few more miles to at least finish that damn canal section (what the stubborn voice told me to do). I kept walking. The noise of the aid station faded away. I felt aimless even though I was still moving forward. Several people passed me including walkers and I was deep into my lowest low when an older man named John walked up beside me. He was a 5am starter and was moving at a brisk pace, but one that I could maintain. I learned that this was his 13th JFK50 and that since getting his hip replaced, he race walks marathons and ultras, including this past MCM. Amazing! I couldn’t believe that I could actually walk the remaining 12 miles and make all the cut offs. I couldn’t have done this alone in the cold and dark – but with company? Perhaps I could finish after all. I felt my spirits lift and even though I knew that this was probably not good for my feet, I felt renewed inspiration to keep going.

As we were chatting on the canal, a young woman named Aly approached us. “Did I hear that you guys are walking? Can I join you?” She was in the same boat as me – unable to run due to pain but wanting to “step it out.” She had quite an impressive string of races under her belt since running her first ultra (a 100 miler!) in April, including two more 100’s and several other distances. Her most recent race was a 50 miler just two weeks before the JFK50 – no wonder her hip was hurting!

I was particularly grateful to have met Aly, as she waited for me at the next aid station while I put on another layer (a long sleeve merino wool top that saved me) and John continued walking to keep his pace. Eric had left me a sweet message with the wonderful aid station volunteers, who passed along his love and cheered me on as we hit the road. THANK YOU volunteers! I was very sad not to be running with him, but I knew that I would soon be joining him at the finish, one way or another.

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THE FINISH (Miles 41.8-50.2)

It was wonderful to finally be free of the canal. It felt like an accomplishment in its own right, even though we still had 8 miles left to go. There were mile markers counting down to the finish, which was awesome and helped us pace ourselves to beat the cut offs. Aly is a 3:33 marathoner like me, and it was slight torture knowing that such a short distance to run would take hours to walk, but so it goes. At least I was in good company and the scenery was beautiful! The sun set as we walked along the gently rolling country roads, and I felt very peaceful as I took in the gorgeous skies and fields filled with cows.

We calculated that we could keep a 14-15min/mile pace and finish well before 7pm (12 hours), when the finish line closes. I don’t think I would have attempted this had I been on my own. It soon got very dark – we were wearing reflective vests and the volunteers were amazing at helping to keep us safe, although we were still walking on a road with traffic which was a bit scary in total darkness. It also got very cold and I couldn’t get warm despite our brisk pace. My foot pain was getting worse too, although it’s amazing how adrenaline and focus on a single goal can dull pain and make it difficult to objectively assess how your body truly feels. Each mile was difficult but felt manageable with the finish line on my brain and my walking buddy by my side. The awesome aid stations with hot soup and cookies also helped – there were THREE during the last 8 miles! Talk about well supported.

This was my first time truly at the back of the pack, and it was a humbling, emotional and inspiring experience. I loved interacting with other walkers and runners, everyone encouraging one another as we all tried to beat the clock. My favorite part of this section involved a man dressed as Mr. Incredible, who we had seen earlier on the canal blasting music from speakers on his bike. He apparently has done this for years. We were walking in the dark silence with many more miles to go when out of nowhere I heard music and saw the road light up. I looked back and there he was, our live DJ riding next to us, playing great rock tunes and illuminating the road with a spot light. I can’t even tell you how uplifting this was – THANK YOU Mr. Incredible! You made my day.

Aly and I caught up to John and another walker with a few miles to go. I was moving more slowly by this point so Aly walked ahead, while John assured me that I had plenty of time to spare and could slow my pace down if I wished. He kept me company for the last few miles, coaching me along and telling me exactly what was left until the finish. I am fortunate to have found so many amazing people out on the course – this race really was a team effort.

I heard the finish before I saw it. I was shivering and hobbling along, but that sound was energizing. We turned right and I saw an area of light ahead. I remember waiting in the dark and cold for E to emerge from the darkness to finish his race last year. Now it was my turn. I thanked John for his support and started to “run” (ahem, shuffle) as soon as I hit the lit section of the road to cross the finish line. I felt so happy to have made it – shocked, really! My watch died hours before I finished, but you can check out my Garmin details here.

E had finished about 30 minutes before me (check out his awesome race report) and thank goodness had just made it back down to the finish line a few minutes before I arrived after grabbing our bags. Whatever had been masking the pain and kept me moving forward over the last few hours was ripped away at the finish. I went from all smiles and walking with a purpose to sobbing and shivering uncontrollably, unable to take a single step. The pain was brutal. I could barely move and was slightly frightened at what I had just done to myself. Respect the distance, E always told me. Seriously. People run double this distance?!

E wasn’t feeling too hot either, but managed to get me to the main building at the Springfield Middle School, where they had food, drinks, medical etc. I piled on the layers and had a hot drink but still could not stop shivering or crying. Total mess. We went to the medical area where I was treated by some wonderful doctors. There wasn’t much to be done other than ice and elevate my feet, hydrate, and see my sports doctor when I got back to NYC, but they took good care of me. One doctor even walked me to the front of the building and personally spoke with someone in charge of the shuttles to make sure I was taken right to my car, given I couldn’t walk. Everyone was so helpful and kind. I cannot speak more highly of this race in terms of the organization and support. No wonder so many people come back year after year to participate!

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I felt miserable the following week – foot pain and body aches magnified by a terrible virus that kept me in bed for several days.  I felt conflicted about my whole race experience. Had I been stubborn and foolish in pushing myself to finish, potentially injuring myself and making myself sick? Or was I being resilient and should I feel proud of myself for finishing? It was confusing, nothing like my previous ultra finishes.

I am finally healthy again and walking like a normal person without any pain. My x-rays were negative (no MRI yet), though I’m continuing to take time off of running to make sure whatever is going on heals properly. It’s been nice to a break after such a busy running season. I signed up for a two-week Class Pass trial and am loving all the variety from so many different cross-training activities!

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So, was it worth it? That’s the question I’ve been grappling with these last two weeks. I think it was. It was a really tough race – one that taught me important lessons about myself and my body – and how can I not be proud of myself for running 50 miles? The JFK50 was an amazing race – I agree that it’s a great first 50 miler – and I’m glad I came back this year to finish the entire course. That said, I think I’m fine not running an ultra for awhile. I’m respecting the distance – and my body.

I ran the NYC marathon for the first time in 2010, back when I was still living in London. It was my second marathon, and I had trained extremely hard with the help of my coach to BQ (sub-3:40 at the time). I remember waiting to start on a perfectly sunny, crisp day. The atmosphere was electric, and I was overcome by emotion as I crossed the start line and took in the amazing views from the Verrazano Bridge.

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Brooklyn was a huge party – I got caught up in the excitement (all smiles pictured above left) and reached mile 13 feeling unusually fatigued. It was way too early to be tired as I entered Queens, and yet every mile was a battle to stay on pace. Cheers from my friends, family and thousands of strangers carried me along 1st ave. I felt my goal slipping away as I made my way through the Bronx and up 5th avenue (where did that hill come from?!), but then something happened when I entered Central Park. I felt a renewed sense of determination and clawed my way back to my goal over the last two miles, unleashing this fury I didn’t know existed. I simply refused to accept defeat – I had worked too hard for that – and found another gear that catapulted me forward to finish in 3:39:36. I was in complete shock as I hobbled my way through the chute. I eventually found my Dad and whispered “I did it” as he gave me a huge hug, which unlocked a flood of tears and a huge smile. My all time favorite post race photo above captures that moment!

That first NYC marathon was a pivotal experience. It inspired me to create this blog, become a running coach, and push myself harder to reach new running goals. It gave me the courage to leave London and go back to grad school to become a dietitian. It solidified my relatively new relationship with E, who also ran that day (his first marathon). It motivated me to coach the Gilda’s club team for the past four years, as I love to share this incredible NYC event with other runners while supporting a great charity. This marathon holds a very special place in my heart, and I had always wanted to run it again – not racing it all out, but at a pace that would allow me to be more present and enjoy every step. This year I finally got to do just that.

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Sunday’s marathon represented many things. Most importantly, E and I raised over $6,000 for team Gilda’s in memory of our friend Noirin, who passed away in June. She started the NYC marathon last year but wasn’t able to finish due to a painful side effect of her cancer treatment. Her DNF must have been very disappointing after training hard and finishing the previous year, but she remained cheerful as always and eager to hear about everyone else’s race. This year, we celebrated her life and finished the marathon for her. As we crossed the start line, I pictured her smile, her laugh, her strength, her determination. It was an ongoing source of inspiration during our race. E and I are so grateful for the generosity of so many friends, family members and co-workers who helped us achieve our fundraising goals – we cannot thank you enough!

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The marathon also happened to be E’s birthday – and what better way to celebrate than by participating in NYC’s biggest block party?! I made special birthday running hats just for the occasion…so silly and fun! (The visor fanny pack will be saved for another time…)

Lastly, the NYC marathon was the first time that E and I actually raced together. We ran two ultras together but these were at a more leisurely pace on trails – very different from racing a road marathon. Sunday actually was a training race for the JFK 50 miler on November 21, which we entered somewhat last minute after being inspired by so many legendary athletes at NESS. E ran it last year (check out his race report) and I had so much fun pacing him, I wanted to give it a go myself! Staying healthy and having fun were our top goals, but since we usually don’t race marathons together, it was a great opportunity for me to pace E to finish in 4 hours. He always tends to go out too fast in road marathons and it was my mission to hold him back, as I know he is capable of sub-4!

One AMAZING thing that we experienced for the first time was waking up in our own beds and going to a marathon start – and hopping on the subway and being back home soon after the finish. I can’t believe it was our first marathon in our home city! I kept forgetting that we were actually running, because there was no hotel or hours of travel involved. AMAZING.

That said, I forgot how logistically challenging this race is! It took us 2.5 hours to get to the start village – cab to ferry to bus to corrals. Getting on the ferry was crazy (took over 30 min to get on due to crowding) and the bus was stuck in tons of traffic. The Wave 1 folks were getting very nervous! We finally made it and wandered around for a bit before making our way to the green corrals. We had more than enough time, there were a billion toilets, and everything was extremely well organized. It was very mild out – turns out E didn’t need that crazy bear suit after all for warmth, but we did get some good laughs!

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We started in wave 2 on the bottom of the bridge, which was a really different experience. Fun but not as dramatic without those great views. It was SO crowded – not at all like in wave 1 five years ago! It was difficult to keep track of E while we each tried to find openings to pass people. I kept telling him not to surge and pass too much to conserve energy but it was difficult given we were constantly slowed down and trapped behind walls of people. By mile 2, we were slightly ahead of pace and I tried to slow him down, which he did but not enough. Those early miles definitely zapped a lot of energy! We finally hit a steady pace around mile 5 or 6, although crowding remained an issue – navigating water stations was particularly challenging – but I guess this is the largest marathon in the world!

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Despite these frustrations, we had an amazing time. The spectator support was even better than I remembered – likely due to warmer weather and the later time. I felt very present and in tune with my surroundings, which was a nice change from my usual tunnel vision hanging on for dear life race experience. Seeing friends was uplifting as were all the great signs (“Never trust a fart,” “Pet for power” with an actual dog in the sign, and so many more), bands, costumes etc. Brooklyn was the same huge party that I remembered and the miles flew by.

E and I chatted and ran comfortably for the first half, singing and taking it all in. As we entered Queens, we knew it was time to work it. What is it about mile 13 in this particular race that always gets to me?! I guess the fun of Brooklyn is over and you know the struggle that lies ahead. The warm weather was starting to get to E but he was doing a great job maintaining pace. The 59th street bridge was challenging as usual – I felt like I was encountering an old enemy as we approached it – and sure enough this is where we started to lose goal pace, but we planned on changing gears and getting back on track later on. E was still hanging on in the Bronx, and I was tired but feeling good at mile 20 – uplifted by the Gilda’s cheer station!

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E started to slow down and the wheels came off as we made our way back into Manhattan. He felt very sick and had to walk it out a number of times between miles 21 and 25. It’s funny how the second you need to take care of someone else, your own pain goes away. All I cared about was making sure he was okay and keeping him moving – running ahead to get him water and Gatorade, and using every motivational phrase and tactic I could think of to get him running again. It was a disappointment to see him struggling – we both really thought he had a 4 hour race or at least a PR in the bag – but hey, we were still running the NYC marathon and we were doing it together, and the rest didn’t matter.

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I thought entering the park would have the same motivating effect on him as it did on me many years ago, but he couldn’t shake off his nausea. I took advantage of these miles to work the crowd – drum up more cheers, tell everyone it was his birthday, and admire the gorgeous Fall colors in the park. Reminded me of all those times when I was struggling late in a marathon, and there always was a runner with WAY too much energy waving his arms around trying to get more cheers from the crowd. Finally, I got to be that person! When we hit mile 25, I pretty much ordered him to stop walking with only 2km to go and things finally turned around. “It never always gets worse,” as Dave Horton always says – so true. He finished so strong and I’m really proud of him, clocking in at 4:13, only about 1 min off his flat marathon PR.

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All in all, it was a great day. Despite some painful miles, E had a wonderful birthday run. I did my best to help him reach his goal and am sorry we didn’t get there, but we learned from what went wrong and will try again next time. Running NYC again really made me appreciate just how challenging the course is –  it’s not exactly “hilly” but there are so many long inclines that can exhaust you over time that you need to be very strategic in how you run it. I don’t have a desire to go back and race it again, but I do hope to run it for fun again someday! You can’t find the same energy and crowd support anywhere else in the world.

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We celebrated with dinner at Babbo – the same restaurant we went to in 2010 (left). Delicious as always!!

So next up is the JFK 50. I felt great during the marathon and recovery was going well until a couple days ago, when my foot randomly started hurting a lot…I’m hoping that this passes quickly with rest! Either way, I can be happy with two great Fall races in the books.

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“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” — E.H.

Background

Running is probably one of the more isolating things that you can do with your time. Most days, you’ll be on your own. You’ll quietly slip out into the morning air at the crack of dawn with no one around to tell you it was a bad idea. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a few familiar voices in your head to keep you company. The bad news is that these voices have names like “doubt,” “fear” and “fatigue.”

Trail running is a slightly different animal. While it’s true that the voices are still there to keep you company, the culture tries to cultivate community. The community tries to rally around the idea of “connection to our collective experience,” including how we connect not just to the mountains, rivers, and wilderness, but also the people that make every experience rich, moving and unique.

10525899_10152810266175821_7688336940618464541_nWhen researching ultra-marathons for the 2014 season, I wanted to find a race that would scream community. The JFK race is steeped in history and community – it was originally conceived by JFK himself as a rallying cry for the USA; a call to a higher standard. Not only did the military return the call, but the public did as well with many such races springing up around the country. Today, there still is a large military presence in the race (Marines won the team event) – and while civilians seem to expect that our elite military units are cut from a different cloth (and IMO that may, in fact, be true), these races remind us that EVERYONE has the ability to exceed his or her own expectations…if we only dare to try.

As part of my mental preparation for the race, last week I had the privilege of hearing Admiral McRaven speak at the office. While I can’t say that I agree with all of his politics, I do think that his pointers for dealing with adversity should be part of the Ultra-Marathon Training Guide.

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The start

Training

So now that we have the race selected, how on earth do you prepare to run 50 miles? This seems to be the most common question I’ve received so far and there are many approaches. After much research, I customized my own training plan as follows:

Step 1: Prepare for a marathon (time it to peak 4 weeks before the race – Marine Corp Marathon fits nicely and it has a similar race profile)

Step 2: Add significantly more volume (+miles, peaking at 178 in September – “time on feet” also works)

Step 3: Add significantly more strength + stabilization + core exercises (gym time + pack running – body weight over metal)

Step 4: Add back-to-back runs (Sat and Sun runs, both at least 1-2 hours to simulate time on feet, peaking at 20+12 miles on Sat+Sun, respectively)

Step 5: Pay special attention to recovery (rest + nutrition)

This approach seemed to work fairly well for me. I exceeded my volume goals by hitting 1400 miles by November and got to the start injury-free. I also included an excessive taper program just to be sure I got to the start rested; for me, that involves very little running the week before the race. While it’s not without a little Taper Madness, I’ve found I always run better when I’m rested and itching to get to the start.

Problem Solving

Race execution at any distance is all about knowing the course and solving problems. Any distance. The JFK50 is split up into a few key sections: the Appalachian Trail (AT) 0-15.5, the canals (15.5-42), and the roads (42-50.2). Embedded in each section are a number of mini-milestones, official cut-off points that let you know if you’re on track to make it to the roads in time. The cut-offs are non-negotiable and you get pulled off the race if you don’t make them. They are AGGRESSIVE because running on a canal in the dark is dangerous – period. There was a lot of discussion on the JFK50 forums by some people that DNF’d this race because they felt the cut-offs were too aggressive. Personally, I feel that these adventures are not supposed to be easy – that’s part of the joy, so get over it.

Now, onto the problems.

The Problems

P1The AT. The AT is super fun but it’s also the most congested part of the course. It’s also the section with the most uphill so you risk burning too hard, too soon – which will destroy you for the rest of the day. It’s very easy to get stuck in a conga line, which has the benefit of forcing you to slow down in the early miles, but the downside is: IT SLOWS YOU DOWN.

JFK (Top) + MCM (Bottom)

JFK (Top) + MCM (Bottom)

Getting off the AT has an additional complication: the train. Yes, there is a train that eventually comes and if it does, you have to wait for it to pass. Precious time wasted. This is no joke and it means you need to be at mile 16 (0.5 mile down the road from the AT exit) by 4 hours.

P2The Canals. Basically, after running for 2-3 hours (3:30 for me) you then have to run an uphill trail marathon fast enough to hit the 42 mile cut-off.

P3The Roads. Asphalt feels like a relief when compared to roots, rocks, etc. However, darkness is now a problem and so is the cold. While you may have started cold, and later on warmed up in the sunlight – now with the sun setting, the cost of keeping warm is also taking its toll on the body. Maybe if you’re fast this isn’t an issue but hey – I’m slow – and so are a lot of people.

P4Nutrition. Your body only has a certain amount of glycogen it can store. Beyond that, you’ll need to find a replacement. The nice thing is that there are many stations along the way to fuel up. The downside is that there are no guarantees what will be there – if you hang your strategy on food that isn’t there when you arrive that’s it – game over. It’s VERY VERY hard to recover from calorie deficit once you get too far behind.

FullSizeRenderP5Hydration: Just like fuel, you lose tons of water and electrolytes in this type of endurance event. You need to drink enough to stay hydrated, but you can’t drink so much that you become hyponatremic. It’s a delicate balance.

P6Pacing. How the heck do you pace this thing? Maybe some people can run the entire length of the course but I cannot. My A goal was to finish under 10 hours (not met), which would require an average pace of 12:00 min per mile. Sounds slow, but when you factor in elevation changes, crowding and pit-stops, time adds up fast. Especially when most people are slowing down significantly in the last third of the race.

The Solutions

While these solutions won’t work for everyone, they certainly worked for me – this time, for THIS race. I’m curious to see which solutions work in future races.10259791_10152816325705821_3810747082238434306_n

S1: The trails. I’ve done a number of trail races so I’m fairly comfortable on this type of terrain. I love to bomb on the downhills and feel like I can cover the rocks in short order. The AT is certainly not the most technical trail out there, however, the uphills are no joke – they burn you out. So like many long races, the key is to take what the trail gives you – run the flats and downs, walk the uphills and pass when you can to get in front of the conga line. In the end, I still wasted probably 30 minutes behind people in un-passable situations. There’s simply nothing that can be done about this except to move faster next time. Just like normal, eyes down and active scanning ahead to avoid branches, rocks and various obstacles. The key is getting out of here without an injury – one gentlemen fell off some steep switchbacks at the end and had blood running down his nose, cheeks and eyes (oh yes, he still finished – he was a 68 year old Vietnam Marine veteran finishing the race for the 26th time).

FullSizeRender-4   FullSizeRender-3

S2: The canals. There’s no secret to this section, you just have to get going. I was very fortunate to have my wife pace me for over 23 miles along the canals (pictured above). She kept me moving and helped me come up with a run/walk system once I hit a few very very low points. Think the key is to mentally find a rhythm and hang on. I’m not sure if I did better or worse with a pacer but having this support sure felt amazing during this section – and with her being such a seasoned runner in her own right, I had complete confidence in her suggestions. That’s really what you need, someone to do the heavy mental lifting when your mind starts to go.

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The final stretch

S3: The roads. At mile 38, I changed into my fleece, which saved me as the sun went down. Not only did it set me up to try and focus on mile 42 – the final cutoff required to finish – but again, it proves that you really can’t do as well without a team to support you. The wife and parents were just legendary in this regard – sprinting around and staying out in the cold as a spectator is no joke. Not enough can be said here to demonstrate my gratitude.

S4: Nutrition. There’s strategy and then there’s flexibility. These races require both. My plan was to take in 200 calories per hour in gels (if it sounds disgusting, you’re right – it is). In order to stay on track, I set my Ironman watch on a 30 min repeating alarm (1st time I tried this). Not only did this make sure I kept the calories constant, it also gave me a kick in the butt when I was stalled. The plan was to use this for base fueling (mix of Vanilla PowerGels, VFuel MCT-based gels) and then supplement with SaltStick tabs (2 per hour) plus aid station food (to taste).

Generally, I’ve done well with potato chips, coca-cola and potatoes/salt at aid stations. I did wind up trying a few new things (bad move) and found that although I was able to tolerate them, I did best with potatoes/salt (thinking of making my own for next time). The key here was (a) keeping on a tight schedule and (b) practicing with everything to make sure your gut doesn’t freak out. I’ve been blessed with an iron stomach and think the only problem was that maybe I still didn’t eat enough on the canal section.

S5: Hydration. Speaking of flexibility, I brought with me one vest bottle and one bladder. It turns out that at 17F degrees the outside tube of your hydration bladder will freeze rendering it useless. I’ve heard of this happening before but it never happened to me. Thank goodness I brought the UD flask with me – it saved me from a real problem. That said, I’m sure I didn’t take in enough water as a result. Pee color looked good though so probably OK. At the worst, I was running with an extra few pounds of water weight (that I shed later – again, thanks to support crew) and at best I was hydrated enough from the frequent aid stations – on a different course, I just don’t know what would have happened here. Likely, a DNF.

S6: Pacing. Here’s where understanding the course matters. In every race, it’s important to have a few ranked goals. Over this sort of distance, the obvious goal is to make the cut-offs and finish the race. This is essential. To go beyond that, you have to be realistic. Veterans advise that you can typically run 2.5 times your marathon time for a 50 miler.

So, if I’m pacing a marathon at 4:00 – that puts me in 10:00 territory – which is exactly what I ran, minus some challenging terrain. In order to do this, I would need to hit the canal somewhere between 2:45-3:15 hours, execute a 4:30-5:30 marathon, leaving me with 8 miles to close out in 1.5 hours (not impossible). This is effectively what happened except for a few differences:

  • Uphills on the AT. There were a lot of them and there’s no way to run everything. It’s just not feasible.
  • Conga Lines. There were plenty of choke points on the AT, especially on the switchbacks. This easily cost me 20-30 minutes.
  • Uphills on the roads. Rolling country roads is a bit of an exaggeration. They were pretty darn steep; like walk with your hands on your knees steep.

Aside from these challenges, you can run most of the flats/downhills and hike the uphills. I probably walked more than I expected, but less than I feared. In general, I was more concerned with finishing once I knew 10 hour goal wasn’t realistic given the above reasons – so I definitely took a conservative pacing approach later in the race.

photoClaire also paced me for almost half of the race on the canal (she had only planned to run 12 miles). This was awesome for a number of reasons. In addition to being able to share the adventure, she was also helpful to keep me pushing forward. Running with a pacer made the event feel so “real” to me; it magnified the undertaking significantly. I’m forever in her debt for getting me through it.

Assessing The Damage

It was a miracle that my family was there to support me. While I managed to find some legs in the last 5 miles and finish strong, there was no question that without someone to pick me up and take me back to the hotel, things could have gotten hairy. One nice feature of the JFK race is that if you don’t have people around, there are showers you can use at the high school after the race – so while I went back to the hotel to shiver, sweat, and freak out uncontrollably – if you do not have such a luxury, you can always do that in your car after a nice hot shower.

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Any race with elevation changes like this one always smashes your quads – no exception here. One big difference was that I was a bit chafed on the inside of my legs and finally got a number of large blisters due to swelling in my feet (and use of road shoes for the duration over trail/hybrids). This wasn’t a surprise, as more than one blister popped during mile 32 or so (ask Claire what the expression on my face was – I’m not entirely sure). Still, it’s always a nice surprise when you take off your shoes to assess the damage and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

It’s Tuesday morning and the feet are mostly healed. Some back toenails, but I have it on good authority that all toenails go to heaven.

Recommendations

If you’re looking for a first 50 mile race on the east coast, you really couldn’t pick a better one. The community, support and available course information make it a fulfilling adventure. I would say that there are other races that I’d rather do now that I’ve tackled the distance, but given the opportunity I would do it again. Mainly, I’d like to take on a course with significantly more trails/elevation – this was the most fun I had the entire day and I can’t wait to try out these legs on some sweet, groomed, west coast sunshine in 2015.

Other Highlights & Notes

It really was an adventure and probably it’s still too soon to process everything. Here were some additional thoughts from the day:

  • A police officer was directing runners at the 49 mile mark; his car was blasting “Ode To Joy.”
  • I did NOT get my red velvet cake at aid station 38. Stopping was a bad idea; at least the wife got to enjoy it. She earned it!
  • Mile 44 won the best aid station award: boiled potatoes with salt. This was my favorite fuel of the day; hands down.
  • Surprise visit from Claire/my parents during my 2nd wind at mile 46 – she was shocked at how fast I was moving (me too).
  • iPods are NOT allowed in this race for safety purposes. This is great because it forces you to meet/work with others through the low points. A new friend Joe and I attacked the short telephone poles together at mile 47 – when I saw him at the end he found me and gave me a huge hug – band of brothers…
  • Mentally, you really go to some dark places. My mental state was strong and was really able to accept the voices and push them aside.
  • The Appalachian mountains are beautiful. I can’t believe I never explored these growing up, given it was only an hour from my house.
  • Still have not completely conquered the chafing monster. More trial/error research is required. DZNUTS worked well both pre/post race.
  • Sprint finish uphill – well, maybe “sprint” is being used too loosely, but it felt faster than 10:00, which after 49 miles is quite something.
  • GPS clocked 51 miles. Well known to be inaccurate although I haven’t quite calculated where it went wrong exactly.
  • Stubbed my toe on the canal and I got a cramp in my chest; very strange place to get a cramp.
  • Right biceps extremely sore. This is likely due to the water bottle on my right side. Think it makes sense to either have 2 bottles or switch side next time.
  • 100 mile races are beyond my ability to comprehend at this point. Claire was sure to remind me after crossing the finish line (in an attempt to discourage any thoughts of running a 100 miler next) that all that pain I was feeling – that was just HALFWAY. One thing I know for sure is that there is probably an exponential effect to the amount of training required (I’d wager > 3x what I did to prepare for this race).
  • The wife kept calling me “el jefe” on the canals – this will no doubt be a short lived moniker…
  • Garmin details (JFK): http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/638753213
  • Reference Documents: Unspoken Rules of Being a Badass: http://runitfast.com/2014/09/16/the-unspoken-rules-of-being-a-badass/

Welcome to FFR

Hi, I'm Claire! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (MS, RD, CDN) and a Road Runners Club of America certified coach. This is where I share my latest adventures in running, racing, food & travel! If you'd like to work with me, please visit my professional website, Eat for Endurance.

My PRs

Marathon (Chicago): 3:33:18
Boston Marathon: 3:36:14
Half-Marathon: 1:37:21
10M: 1:14:52
10k: 44:52

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