Running should feel natural

Running should feel natural

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The 2013 JFK 50 Miler: race recap

I have now had over a week since I finished JFK to let things fully sink in.  Immediately after a race you go through a lot of emotions.  Sometimes you can't wait to sign up for another race, other times you don't even want to think about running.  You went through the agony, and now get to feel the ecstasy.  If you had a bad race all you can do is try to analyze your training and race day to figure out what went wrong.  If things went well you just get to savor the accomplishment.  I was pretty happy overall with JFK.  Given my relaxed training schedule that included a 3 week hiatus while I was in Europe, I felt my race day performance was awesome!

Race: JFK 50 Miler
Date: November 23, 2013
Location:  Boonsboro, MD
Finishing Time: 8:10:31

The Wait

Staying warm pre-race in the gym.
Although it would have been possible to come up race morning, I headed up (as did most people) the night before.  Its always fun to be around all the other runners ahead of time, just don't get too excited or you won't be able to sleep!  Speaking of, I was able to get a solid 6 hours of sleep in which is pretty great considering I probably only slept 2 hours before my first marathon.

I let my hotel at 5:15am and walked across the street to meet some of my friends at the official race hotel.  After some weak coffee and stale bagels, it was about a 15 minute drive to the race starting area in Boonsboro.  We got to keep warm while we listened to a pep talk from the race directors in the gymnasium of the Boonsboro highschool.  At about 6:45 we took the half-mile walk to the start line.  We had a jovial group of about a half dozen runners together, all of which would be separated soon into the race.

The First 4 miles

The race started in downtown Boonsboro, which is actually just a tiny main street strip that soon turns into a rural road.  I've never heard of an Ultra that starts in anything else than basically a field, but this is the largest 50 miler in the country so I guess its an exception.  The sun was just starting to peak through giving us more than enough light to find out way.  We were walking down, still lining up at about 6:59am when suddenly the gun went off!

The road quickly starts gaining in elevation.  The starting temperature was in the 30s, and while this is great for running you are pretty cold starting out so the opening hills were a good way to warm up.  It can also be easy to expend too much energy too early on, so I made sure to take it easy an even walk up some portions of the hill.  We soon arrived at the crest of the mountain pass where the entrance to the Appalachian Trail awaited us.

12 Rocky Miles on the AT

Tip-towing down the trail.
If you have ever run on the Appalachian Trail (which fortunately I had) you know its rocky, rooty, and requires your utmost attention.  I was worried about getting caught behind a train of runners but it was spaced out enough that I could see where I was going just fine.  I really did not want to fall flat on my face so, even in the flatter, easier sections, I tried to stay focused on my footing and on the terrain 2-5 feet ahead.

Though is was probably the slowest going section of the race it was also my favorite.  This feels like real trail running, and really allows you to take advantage of practicing on technical trails. As much fun as I was having I still had to hold back a little - you don't want to exhaust yourself considering you aren't even close to being half-way done!

There was more climbing than I remembered, and more pavement than I expected - one long section required walking up to the summit on roads before we ascended back down on the trail.  Things were mostly uneventful - I filled up my water bottle with about 5 miles of AT left.  As you begin to exit the trail there is a steep downhill segment that requires some major tip-toeing, all this while hearing the cheers of spectators in the first major aid station.

A Marathon on the C&O Canal Towpath

View of Harpers Ferry.  We passed in front of the Rocks on the Towpath in
the bottom-left of the frame.  Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia/Harpers_Ferry.
After leaving the Appalachian Trail section, and passing through a cheer tunnel of onlookers we ran through a short but precarious section, under a bridge (that turned out to be Rt. 340), and out to the actual aid station.  This time I not only refilled my hand bottle but eat a PB&J sandwich, a few chips, and grabbed a Gu to eat momentarily.  We crossed the railroad tracks (fortunately no train crossing today) and go onto the C&O Canal Towpath around Mile Marker 59.  What awaited me was over a marathon on the towpath, a tall task both physically and mentally.

I tried to split it up in my mind like you would most marathons: the first 10 miles, the middle 10 miles, and the last 10 kilometers.  Starting off was nice, lots of people around to trade pleasantries with and the sun was starting to really come out.  We passed through Harpers Ferry, a beautiful, historical area at the intersection of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.  Looking out at the railroad tracks and church steeples peaking up through the trees I was reminded of a quaint, sort of "any-town", European village.

From there the towpath just drags on, and on.  The crowds space out and there isn't anything to look at, only forest to your right and the Potomac river to your left.  You really just need to focus on reaching the next aid station, which were about 4 miles apart.  I was really hurting around 35 miles into the race, mentally and physically.  I had the good fortune of meeting up with another runner to give me someone to talk to.  This guy was very experienced and just kind of taking it easy at JFK.  This gave me someone to keep up with when I might have started to fade otherwise.

We kept going, taking walking breaks at times, knocking down mile after mile.  You can run faster than on a real trail, but at the same time the repeated motion on the fairly flat towpath stresses the same muscles for so long that things have a habit of wearing out.  My hamstrings and achilles were getting fatigued - I didn't have any "pep" in my step at this point, not that you need much on an Ultra.  The last aid station I remember on the Towpath was a big boost - not only did I fill up my hand bottle and have a snack like all the other stations, but they also had hot noodle soup which provided for a salty mix of carbs and hot broth.  As we exited the Towpath my new friend took off to try and make some time up in the last 8 miles.

SO happy to be off the Towpath!

8 More Miles on Roads

Finally off the towpath I was cautiously optimistic.  Over 42 miles in you start thinking you are "almost" done, however the term is relative since you must remind yourself you still have probably an hour and a half of running left.  We immediately hit a huge hill that necessitated a walking break, and from there got onto some country roads to guide us into Williamsport, Maryland.  Although you are able to run faster on pavement the biggest downside of this section was the exposure of being in wide open spaces, which nothing to shelter you from the wind and sun.  A lot of the hills were runable but I still opted to power walk up them just to give my running muscles a break.

I never really felt close to the point of "bonking", which is a major cause for concern in any multi-hour race.  My quads and hamstrings were really starting to fatigue, and both my achillies were just about dead for the day.  Stretching things out on the hills did at least help keep everything going when the roads would flatten back out.  I was just kind of in a daze, counting the miles down 1 by 1, but finally started to wake up with about 3 miles to go.  I couldn't wait to be done.  It was cold out and the only way to stay warm was to keep running.

Looking only at the elevation chart for JFK it never really looked like a "hard" race (though its never easy running 50 miles!) since elevation changes are what normally tires you out and slows you down.  The long, boring, stretches on the towpath, coupled with the exposed road sections in the cold & windy November weather made this race justifiably "tough".

Kicking it into high-gear with the finish in sight!

The Finish

With 1.5 miles to go, or "6 more laps around a track" as I reassured myself, I decided to speed it up and run as fast as reasonably possible.  Coming around the final bend I could see the finish chute about 200 meters away.  I was ecstatic and SO happy to finally be done!!  With no other runners around I threw off my hand bottle and hat, pumped my fists, and did a celebratory flying kick through the finish line!

I feel like JFK was one of my biggest accomplishments, right up there with my first marathon, breaking 3 at Chicago, my first trail race, and running Boston.  I got to set a respectable PR for myself in the 50 mile distance and check-off one of the few legendary Ultras.  It wasn't easy, and this was probably the most sore and stiff I have been since my first marathon, but it was totally worth it.

I had some family at the finish so it was great to find familiar faces after so much cold, isolated, and tiring running.  Inside the Williamsport middle school there was plenty of food, massages and a growing number of exhausted runners.  I even got to speak with Charlie from RunWashington, who quoted me in their JFK 50 recap!

Feeling well rested and recovered I can now ease back into running, work on some speed in December and January, and get back into pure Ultra training in late January to prep for my lofty 2014 Goals (stay tuned for those).

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