Sunday, November 28, 2010

JFK 50: Way out of my comfort zone.

You can blame the length of this post on Delta airlines and free internet access during the holidays, as I sit here on my flight home to Portland from DC, reflecting on last weekend's race:

Leading up to JFK, I hadn't given much thought as to what my goals were until my friend, Darla, asked me during a run the weekend before.  And I verbalized to her that I wanted to run around 7 hours.  It just popped out of my mouth, without prior thought.  After I blurted that out, I somehow felt responsible for trying to achieve that now "public" goal (so thanks for asking, Darla!).  I've run sub-7 once before for 50 miles (6:56 in Coban, Guatemala) on roads with plenty of climb and some elevation factored in, so I knew that I had it in me for the distance. However, I wasn't sure how slow the Appalachian Trail section would be and if the C&O Canal Section would bore me to the point of drowning myself in the Potomac.  My fastest trail 50 miler to date was a 7:34 at Bull Run Run.  JFK is technically a trail race, although the fact that 26 miles of that are on the flat towpath and another10 miles are on road (2 + 1 at the beginning, and 8 at the end), makes it a pretty "easy" trail race.  "Easy" probably isn't the correct term here.  It's a very "runnable" 50 miler, in that you don't get any opportunities to walk between coming off of the AT and moving onto the road section, and there isn't much room to justify walking at all.  And running a flat 26 miles in the middle of an ultra is not easy.  Mind-numbing, yes, leg-trashing, yes, but easy, no.  If you saw me finish on Saturday, the pained expression on my face and my crippled gait would lead you to believe that it hadn't been "easy."

Mile 10.  Feeling good and enjoying the Appalachian trail section. Photo courtesy of
I took a pretty hard one-week taper going into JFK.  I ran a solid 20 miles the Saturday before, but then ran no more than 7 miles on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday with 3 rest days.  I haven't had a long break since last winter when I was nursing some ankle tendon injuries and was starting to feel like I needed one.  I had planned to take 2-3 weeks off  after Pine to Palm in September, but after a week, I was itching to run again, so did.  Thus, after working back up to a couple of 70 and 80 mile weeks (big weeks, for me) I was feeling sluggish and decided to take one easy week pre-JFK. The reason I signed up for JFK was that I wanted to get a 50 miler in before HURT in January.  When I realized that JFK would coincide with my trip back to DC for Thanksgiving, it was an easy solution and wouldn't require extra travel besides heading home a couple of days early.  It's also a Montrail Ultra Cup race, and would allow me to have enough races to compete in the Cup.

I learned long ago, that looking at entrants lists is a somewhat futile activity, as names always get added at the last minute, and the JFK entry list was too long to search, anyhow.  I knew that Jill Perry was running because I saw her at sign-up the day before, and that there were a few fast marathoners, but didn't know much besides that. I had meant to at least check previous years' splits at some point, but forgot to do that, so had no idea what splits I might want to be hitting if I were to really try for 7 hours.  I also forgot to bring any gels, because it was advertised that the aid stations would have them and I forgot about probably wanting one in the first several miles, so grabbed a chocolate Santa and some gummy savers from Sheetz as fuel until l I hit a gel-stocked aid station.  I really hadn't given the race a whole lot of thought or planning, but as is the case with my training schedule, I'm not much of a planner when it comes to these things.  And the less thought I give it, the less stressed out I get, and that's a good thing.  So, I was pretty calm the night before, enjoying a nice dinner with Kris and friends, and lucking into finding gnocchi on the menu at the Italian restaurant in Hagerstown.  Gnocchi and pink sparkly toenails are my 2 pre-race rituals/superstitions.

Race morning was lovely---chilly at the start, but warm enough for short sleeves with some arm warmers and mittens.  It was fun catching up with VHTRC friends in the school gym pre-race, and while walking to the start.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Pam Smith, a friend from Oregon, standing next to me on the starting line.

JFK is the oldest and largest ultra in the country (~1200 runners this year; you can read about the history here), and the mass of people at the start was a bit unnerving.  And as one would expect from a race that starts on roads, includes lots of fast guys, and also lots of newbies to ultra-running, it started out at a pretty good pace. I attempted to start out fast to begin the trail section towards the front.  The race is very distinctly divided into 3 sections:  The Appalachian Trail, the C&O Canal Towpath, and the road section.

The Appalachian Trail:  
The first 2 miles are on gently climbing road, up to the AT.   Being that the trail section comes early, and is infamous for turning into a congo line, there is good reason to try to start out fast and avoid the masses. The Appalachian Trail section is technical.  It's rocky, crowded and covered with leaves, which make it a bit precarious.  After climbing pretty consistently for the first 5 miles, the AT section is rolling, with more climb than descent, until you reach Weverton Cliffs, where steep switchbacks take you down to the Towpath.  I was moving OK along the AT section, although my legs had no juice on the rolling climbs. I managed to stay upright until about a half mile from the end of the AT section, where I managed to face plant on my right knee and left middle finger.  That finger has already seen hand surgery from a running fall, so I was not happy about its swollen and purple state.   I wasn't in the lead anywhere on the trail section, and couldn't see the person in the lead, but somehow when I passed through the aid station at the transition point leading onto the C&O, I was in first.  I'm guessing there were some bathroom stops or shoe changes involved, because I was a bit confused when they said first female as I came through the aid station.

Stats: 15.5 miles in 2:19:55 for 9:01 min/mile

The C&O Canal Towpath: 
That soon changed, as the girl in yellow, who I think had been leading on the AT, quickly resumed the lead.  I passed her back within a mile, and tried to get into a rhythm, while trying to plan for a bathroom stop at the next aid station or so. I passed Anstr at about this time, which was a highlight of the Canal section, as he seemed genuinely happy to see me, and sped up to run with me for a few feet. It was nice to see VHTRC shirts scattered throughout the day, and to come upon many matching "Happy Trails" shirts as we passed the early starters.

The next aid station came along, and I expected to be passed as I took a longish stop, but exited the bathroom and aid station still in the lead with the bike escort.  I assumed the girl in yellow must have faded a bit, and I stopped worrying about what was going on behind me.  I continued to pass people on the towpath; it gave me something to think about besides the fact that this section seemed endless.  Some of them were early starters, and some were just fading, but I don't think I got passed by anyone along the towpath, and managed to pick off quite a few.  I cruised along pretty comfortably, except that I felt like I was pushing, and started to feel like the wheels would eventually come off.  But the slower you go on the towpath, the longer it lasts, so I kept pushing and pleading for the mile markers to pass more quickly.   At some point, I saw Horton, and he told me I probably had 10 minutes on the next female, and that she was hurting, so I wasn't too worried, as I wasn't feeling that bad.

My Garmin died during Pine to Palm and hasn't yet been replaced; I used to rely on it pretty heavily, so really wasn't sure what pace I was keeping.  A very nice French guy from Virginia ended up running with me the last several miles of the C&O and when I asked him at some point, we were on 7:30 pace.  We both seemed to be pushing, but dying at the same time.  The aid stations came and went, and although I struggled, I managed to maintain a lead, and what people told me was a comfortable one.  No one was passing us, even though the pace was slowing, and those last miles on the towpath seemed to last forever,  By mile 38 or so, I really started to get grumpy, and couldn't wait for the canal section to end and for that hill to come to give me an excuse to walk.  Finally we reached the final C&O aid station, and turned off the onto that glorious road, and that first steep little hill, which I was all too happy to walk.

Stats: 26.3 miles in 3:27:14 for 7:52 min/mile

The Road:
I did manage to start running again after the hill, and although it wasn't fast, I kept running.  At the same time, I knew that 7 hours was starting to slip away, and I just didn't have the heart (or legs) to go after it.  I slogged through one aid station, stopping for soda and gels, and then another.  I went back and forth with my friend from the towpath, and another guy who seemed to be moving better than we were. I entered the mile 46 aid station and was focused on the table, when I heard the guy working the station mention, "It's so exciting to see such a close women's race."  Huh?  I gave him a dazed and confused look, and turned around to see Pam entering the aid station about 10 feet away.  She scared the crap out of me.  I had absolutely no idea she was behind me.  I was so out of it, I hadn't seen her approaching for the last 4 miles on road.  We exchanged cheerful "hellos" and she told me that she was trashed and that it was mine, and to go for it.  I wanted to tell her the same thing, but it didn't seem an appropriate time to get into a debate about who was more trashed, so just took off, still startled at seeing her there.  I was feeling completely trashed, but was also not willing to give up after leading for 30 miles. So, I surprised myself, and dug as deep as I could and pushed on, looking back frequently to assess the situation.  My "sprint" out of the aid station had put some time on her, and I kept surprising myself by maintaining that distance, as my legs were completely shot.

Throughout the day, when I was feeling low I kept thinking of Mike Broderick, and some dear friends and their little boy who has had an unfair struggle in his first few weeks of life, and wouldn't let myself fall into negative thoughts.  In this weekend prior to Thanksgiving, I had a ton to be thankful for, including my health to be out here doing what I loved with many others who share the same passion.  I used these same thoughts that had been coming back to me all day to dig as deep as I could, remembering that my pain was temporary, and that I chose this pain.  I also remember thinking during this stretch that I wished I could see a few hours into the future to see what the eventual outcome would be.  But, at that moment, it was up to me to determine what that outcome was so I pushed on, fearing the finish line would be too far away.

Stats: 8.4 miles in 1:10:07 for 8:20 min/mile

Yes, I was in as much pain as my face implies.  Photo from
The Finish:
I finally reached the final turn, and asked the crossing guards how much further.  0.3 miles.  $#@&!  I was trying to push, but my legs simply weren't moving.  It's like that basketball dream I always have where I'm playing in big furry mittens, or the running dreams where I'm running in place.  I looked back countless times in that final 0.3 miles, while willing my legs to move forward, and for the finish line to move towards me.  After what seemed like days, I finally reached the line, and Pam hadn't caught me.  6:57:16, with Pam finishing 21 seconds back; the closest finish in JFK history for either men or women.  Way too close for comfort, and a good first step in breaking out of my comfort zone.  If you've read this blog before, or know me, I've mentioned that I don't like to race, and that competition causes me to back off.  I surprised myself that I had it in me to fight for this one.

Many thanks to Pam, for pushing me, and congratulations, also, on a great time and race.  We pushed each other under 7 hours and should both be proud of that effort.  In 48 years, only 7 other women have finished under 7 hours.  Kind of funny that we'd both come all of the way from Oregon to duke it out in Maryland, but a great day for Team Oregon (Dan O from OR was 5th in the men's race, too).  I really thought that Pam allowed me to win, but you can read her account here (maybe she's just not admitting it publicly).

Some people hate JFK for the size, $, Towpath, and/or hype, but lots more people love it. Some people do it year after year after year.  I was lucky enough to watch Anstr finish his 28th in a row.  28 years of the Towpath---wow.  I'm definitely glad I had the chance to do it, as it was a unique ultra experience that is not found elsewhere.  The military connection to the event also adds to the uniqueness of the event, and it was especially exciting that this year for the first time in the 48-year history of the event, an active-duty military guy won the event.  Brian Dumm, air force, ran 5:52:02 in what was another close finish; the second closest finish in history.

There's a nice story on the race here.  And if you watch the video on that page, you can see my pathetic final "sprint."

And something I didn't know until the awards ceremony---apparently JFK is one of the races that has special qualifying standards for the national 100K team, such that anyone running under 7:15 can be considered for the team.  So while I don't plan to run the 100K national championships in Madison in April, I could still be considered for the team.  I'm guessing chances are slim that I would get on the team without running in Madison, but it's exciting to have met the qualifying standard.  I'd love to represent the USA in Amsterdam next year.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Breaking out of my Comfort Zone

The other day someone asked me if I run marathons.  I replied with one of those, "Well, um, not really. Marathons kind of scare me.  I've run a few marathons, but haven't run one in a few years.  I run anything over a marathon, but marathons are short and fast, and that kind of scares me." They gave me that odd look that people often do when I describe a marathon as "short and fast" and scarier than a 100 miler.  Well, to someone that likes a race with over 20,000 feet of climb, marathons, as a race, are short and fast and do scare me.  The thought of a half marathon is less scary for some reason, but the thought of a 10K or 5K is downright petrifying.  I don't think I've run a 5K since my last cross country race in college; it's been a good 15 years.  So, my goal for 2011 (besides placing in the top 5 at Western States) is to run a road marathon.  Fast.  Well, as fast as I can.  I'd like to run a 3 hour marathon.

Dad and I (ten years later)
I've run 4 marathons.  My first was Big Sur in 1998, which I ran with my dad.  It was fun.  We finished together in 3:34'ish, and it wasn't so bad. My dad--who started running later in life (mid 40s) and is a pretty speedy old fart with a marathon PR of 2:55--didn't think his daughter--who took the only year off of running in her life during her first year in grad school and had started training in January for an April marathon--would be hard to keep up with, so didn't train too intensely for the occasion.  Let's just say that I was still cracking jokes at mile 24, and dad had stopped laughing.  But, we finished together, and it was a beautiful marathon and really fun experience.

My second marathon was the Asunciรณn Marathon in Paraguay in 2002.  I was in my 3rd year of Peace Corps, and living in the capital at the time, thus used to dodging buses and inhaling diesel fumes.  It was an experience, and very Paraguayan (the organization of it--or lack thereof--was quite different than one might be used to or expect, which made it that much more endearing).  Again, I ran around 3:30, and wrote a letter to Boston to ask if I could use it as a Boston Qualifier, being that it wasn't a certified course.  They agreed, and my 3rd marathon was Boston in 2003.

Training for Boston was a hoot.  I was backpacking my way home from Paraguay, and thus got to run my way up the coast of Chile, into Argentina, and Peru (not literally, I traveled by bus, boat and plane).  I ran 3:12 at Boston, motivated by the huge crowds and water stops, and the intense contrast to the marathon I had run in Paraguay to qualify.

At some point, I wound up in DC, so ran the Marine Corps marathon in 2005.  I had a really good first 23 miles and was on 3-hour pace.  I had never experienced the "wall" before.  Wow.  It really does exist.  I now respect the wall, and what zero intake of calories during a race will do to you.  I staggered in in 3:17 with a (really hot) marine helping me up that last little hill.

Not long after that trail running entered my life, and not long after that the VHTRC and my ultra-running friends.  I jumped into my first 50 miler at Masochist in 2006 and haven't looked at a marathon since.  But that needs to change.  I plan to step out of my comfort zone in the next year, or so (see, I'm already pushing it back) and train for a road marathon PR.  It's not just about running a marathon.  I can easily do a marathon on any weekend and I often run that distance or longer for a training run.  It's about putting myself out there and going for 3 hours.  Eeks!   I'm already making up excuses to get out of this.