50 Miles of Lessons Learned

Yep, these runners are walking up this hill at around mile 5.

Yep, these runners are walking up this hill at around mile 5.

The JFK 50 was a pleasant experience in so many ways.  I know that sounds a tad crazy, but it went better than I could ever have expected!  Maybe it was just my lucky day or maybe I trained right.  Regardless, I just want to pass along some things I learned about training for and running an ultramarathon.

1.  Follow your training plan.

Fortunately, I have my own certified running coach: me.  I know how to kick my own tail.  I develop my own training plans based on what I have learned and the research I have done.  Regardless of where you get your training plans and whether or not you have a coach, the most important thing is to follow that plan.  Don’t be tricked into saying to yourself “Oh, I can’t squeeze in 6 miles, so I will just do five.”  That will soon become a habit.  Then you might be saying “It will be okay if I miss my run today because I can make it up later.”  Sometimes things come up that you can’t help (like you come down with the flu), but if your schedule doesn’t allow training for an ultra, then you shouldn’t be doing one.  I have a full-time job, a coaching business on the side and three small children.  Yet, I still have time to train because I make the time.  If you can’t make the time to follow a training plan, then try something not quite so challenging.

2.  Your training runs are practice runs.  Learn what to do and what not to do, then just do what works.

In the week leading up to the JFK 50, there were quite a few people posting questions on the facebook page.  A few of them didn’t make sense to me.  People were asking questions like what they should carry for hydration and what they should be eating.  Seriously, if you didn’t practice that during your training runs, then I am not sure what to tell you.  It got to a point where I had to post a reply: “Just do whatever you did during training!”  I wore my hydration vest and carried food during training, so that is what I did during the race.  Sure, if I were trying to win then maybe I would want to lighten my load, but all I wanted to do was finish and I knew I could if I stayed hydrated and well-fueled.

3.  Practice walking during your training runs.

I know that this sounds odd, but trust me, it is a hard thing to practice if you are a runner who has never done an ultramarathon before (or a runner who has never set foot on trails).  I had trouble finding the patience to do this during a 20-mile run because I knew that I could run the entire twenty miles.  However, I compared time for two 25-mile runs… one involved running the entire way and the other one included intervals of 25 minutes of running with 5 minutes of walking.  Do you know which time was faster?  The one that included the 5 minute walk breaks!  I wasn’t able to be 100% consistent during the race, but I focused on walking most of the hills and running the flats and downhills.

4.  The most important part of your body to train is your mind.

At around mile 35, I heard a runner say to another runner “I left John behind.  He was in a dark place and I couldn’t get him going.”  Every now and then I would wonder when I would hit my “low” because I naturally expected it to happen at some point during a 50-mile run.  I used to hit walls during marathons at around mile 22.  I just thought that maybe it would be later for an ultra.  However, it never hit.  I never experienced a low point during the race.  Okay, at mile 46 I sure as heck wanted to be done with the race, but I was able to speed up and keep my focus on the finish line.  In order to train your mind, you have to experience some of the crap that comes along with training.  During one 24-mile training run, I struggled during the last 4 miles.  My struggle was so intense that I had to repeat a phrase over and over: “One foot in front of the other.”  I felt like I could barely put one foot in front of the other.  If you don’t have tough training runs, then you won’t know how to be prepared for whatever challenges you face during the race.  If you are prepared, then you have less anxiety.  You also have to run long and run far.  They say back-to-backs are good to do since you run on tired legs the next day.  Sure, that gets you physically prepared, but you HAVE to run for a long time without any breaks in order to get the true experience of what it will mentally feel like on race day.

5.  Train on the terrain you will run on race day.

The first 15 miles of the JFK are up and over a mountain on the Appalachian Trail.  I spent all of last winter running trails in Colorado.  Even though it has been awhile since I have been on a “real” trail, I still had that knowledge of trail running.  I also took advantage of whatever trails I could find in my local area (even though they were a far cry from mountain trails).  I also did hill workouts in preparation for the climbing.  Not only that, but 26 miles were on a long and boring (but very beautiful) section of the C&O canal.  If I could count how many times I experienced long and boring running around Chesapeake… Oh, and let’s not forget, if the race doesn’t allow music, then you probably should train without music.  Honestly, I wasn’t very bored at all during the race and I actually felt like those 9 hours and 55 minutes just flew by!

6.  Don’t do anything new on race day.

This kind of goes along with #2.  I actually wore different clothes than I had been training in for the past 6 months since the weather was a whole lot colder.  However, as mentioned before, last year I ran through a Colorado winter.  Also, I had prepared to eat a variety of foods, but I decided not to pass up Christmas cookies and red velvet cake.  And no, I never tried those during training.  However, I do know that I have an iron stomach.  I once spent my first trimester of pregnancy stationed on a ship in the middle of the Bering Sea during winter… and I never threw up.  If you have a sensitive stomach, then skip the red velvet cake because you don’t know how it will affect you.

7.  Female runners are level-headed.

Females are actually better able to keep their minds in the right place during distance races than males.  I know, I know… I didn’t do the research, but I will tell you that the only complaints I heard came from the mouths of males.  I remember this one specifically: “I just want to get off this canal trail!  It is so long!”  I seriously wanted to punch this dude in the face.  How dare you speak negative out loud while I am enjoying time in my happy place??

8.  Most of all, have fun!

It is a once in a lifetime experience… well, maybe more than once if you are truly crazy!  One runner has finished that race 45 times!

Even if you follow all of these tips and every other tip you read in all of the books, you can’t always be prepared for what mother nature or mankind might throw at you.  It could snow and a thick layer of ice might form on the trail.  There could be a train you have to stop for (as in the case with some JFK 50 runners).  Maybe there is freezing rain in subfreezing temperatures (only 17% of runners in 1974 finished the race due to these conditions).  Or you acquire a nasty virus the day before a race.  The point is, you just never know what could happen so tuck away a Plan B.

 

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Sunrise to Sunset

The Appalachian Trail... beautiful, but kind of rocky!

The Appalachian Trail… beautiful, but kind of rocky!

It started at sunrise. I was freezing my rear off at the starting line. The gun went off and a herd of runners started running… up a hill. Great way to warm up my cheeks! We kept going up and up. We passed cute little homes right next to the road and I remember an old lady with her little white dog watching us through her window. How nice it must be, all cozy in a toasty little house with no reason to run. I wondered if she had been staring out that window every year on this day for the past 52 years. 1963. That’s when JFK pushed to bring the country back to physical fitness. Sorry Mr. President, but our country is still lacking some good old-fashioned PT.

The one biggest difference between a marathon and a 50-mile race is that runners will stop to walk up hills, even during the first mile. If you’re not smart, then go ahead and just keep running up. We will see how far you make it. I kind of took the vibe of the group I was mixed in with. I walked when they walked and ran when they ran. I could kind of pick out the veteran ultrarunners… they just dress differently than the newbies. And they also appear to have a lot of facial hair.

We finally arrived at the top of the mountain at around 1,100 feet where we got onto the Appalachian Trail. That was a bit of a tight squeeze. It’s kind of like driving a car… you have to really gun it and pass safely or just ride the draft and wait it out. Sometimes there is a major traffic jam and you have to remain patient. At one point we arrived at a very rocky section and I was caught in one of these major traffic jams. Someone in the front of the line was delicately stepping over rocks. No lady… that’s not how trail running is done in Colorado. I’ve got my Colorado hat on so I better do something. I gunned it and hopped over rocks like nobody’s business. I left that train of runners in the dust and had an exhilarating few miles of running through the serene forest. My primary focus was on making sure that I didn’t face plant into a rock. I kept wondering when my ego might get the best of me. Eventually I was humbled by the steep and very rocky switchbacks that took us back down the mountain. I am like a grandma when it comes to running downhill. Give me an uphill any day.

By the time I made it the bottom of the mountain at mile 15.5, my legs were on fire. I think I just killed myself going over the mountain with the constant rock hopping. That was like a trail run from hell. I focused my attention on happy thoughts… like the fact that I would now be running on a flat, dirt trail along the river. I remember thinking that I had to go to the bathroom, but I either kept forgetting to stop at the port-a-potties or I told myself that I didn’t want to wait in line because that would take up too much valuable time.

As I eased onto the canal trail, I started my 25 minutes of running combined with 5 minutes of walking. I focused on making it through each 25 minutes so I could take a break with the 5 minutes of walking. I’m not sure if I would call it a “break” now because it hurt more to walk than it did to run. However, I knew that I needed to slow it down once in a while. There was a time between mile 18 and mile 22 when I was cruising along at a pace just under 9 min/mi. I felt so good! The funny thing is, when I run marathons I usually hit a wall around mile 20. My mind was in a happy place. Every now and then I would think “seriously, I have 30 more miles to go!” but then I would draw my attention back to the beauty of the river or the calmness of the trees.

During those next few miles I kept thinking about seeing my family at mile 27. I just stayed focused on getting to that point and I was still feeling good. I kept pace with a veteran runner for a few miles. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me he was 71 years old and that he had finished this race 24 times! Shoot, if he could keep going, then I sure as heck could!

My family was there waiting for me at mile 27. I hugged my girls and changed my shoes. Then I got back up and kept going… only to realize that my feet had exploded. They were so swollen that my toes were squished against my shoe. Oh crap, this sucks. Maybe I shouldn’t have changed shoes! I don’t know what happened, but after a mile I was okay. Whatever pains I had during the race… knee, calf, toes, feet, back… came and went pretty quickly. Maybe I was able to mentally tuck them away into a little compartment. I don’t know, but I just assumed I would pay for it later.

The canal trail kept going and going. At mile 30, I wondered how in the heck I was going to run 20 more miles. At mile 32, I thought “oh crap, this is the longest distance I have EVER run in my ENTIRE life.” At mile 33, I thought about seeing my family again at mile 38. I just kept running and eating. Oh, let me tell you about the eating. Even when I am running, I seem to have a problem avoiding the junk food. It was just sitting there on every freakin’ table like a giant smorgasbord! I started off great with some oatmeal and a banana. Then I had a gluten-free berry bar. Next I ate a gel (lately I have had some kind of gel aversion, but I choked it down). After that it was pretty much anything I saw that looked good: m&m’s, donut holes, chips, pretzels, cookies. I did eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana for lunch. Okay, so I know I said I was looking forward to seeing my family at mile 38, but I was also told that there would be some red velvet cake. I couldn’t pass up a JFK 50 tradition.

Mile 38. I hugged my family and told them that I would see them at the finish line. At mile 41.5 I was handed the “vest of shame.” I was 15 minutes shy of not having to wear the reflective vest, but I was still doing pretty damn good. We were about to step out onto the road and safety is always a concern at races like these… especially when runners appear drunk at mile 45 and are swerving all over the road.

The first section of the road was up. The course description did mention that these last 8 miles would be rolling, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. I basically walked up the steep hills (okay, the ones that appeared steep to me) and ran the rest. At mile 44, I was thinking that the next 6 miles were going to be the longest 6 miles of my life. Then I stopped thinking that and tried to take in the scenery… lots of farmland and large homes. I noticed the sun setting to my left. I could feel the coldness returning, so I continued forward in hopes that I would reach the finish line at dusk. At that point, I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I would make my 10-hour goal.

I had a love/hate relationship with the mile markers that were posted every mile. 5 miles to go, 4 miles to go. At mile 46 I just wanted to be DONE. I was still moving along at a good pace and I actually started thinking that I might possibly make it in under 10 hours. I had to keep up the pace, though. I pushed it with every last drop of energy I had.

I remember seeing the finish line and hearing the announcer. I was amazed that I still had enough gas left in the tank to book it as fast as I could go. It felt like I was running 7 mph, but I am pretty sure I was only moving at a snail pace. I was filled with joy (and relief) when I saw my family waving to me right next to the finish line. I crossed the line and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. Someone was asking for my bib number. Another person was trying to pull the vest over my head, while the next person was putting a medal over my head. All I wanted to do was collapse!  Oh, and let me not forget to mention that I finished in 9:55:18!  Whoop!

As soon as I crossed that finish line, my body was done. You could not have asked me to run another mile. I could barely walk to the car without stopping every few feet (and the car seemed so far away!). I was in more pain at that point than I was at any time during the race. I had no concern about eating, drinking or even using the bathroom (which I never did at any point during the race). Speaking of bathrooms, I saw more bare bottoms during that race than I had ever hoped to see in a lifetime. It appeared that runners were getting too tired to even move off the path a few feet.

The car ride back to the hotel was painful. I even asked my husband to drop me off at the front door because I was positive I wouldn’t be able to walk through the parking lot without getting hit by a car. Once inside the hotel room, I couldn’t be bothered to leave. The day before I had talked about my veggie burger, fries and cupcake that I couldn’t wait to devour. Now, I was just happy with my husband grabbing a pizza (and of course he did bring back cupcakes). My youngest daughter kept asking: “Mommy, are you sick?”

Now that it is all said and done, I can reflect on my accomplishment. Running 50 miles is no easy task, but there was a time when even running a 5K seemed daunting to me. We all move forward in our own way and at our own pace. I don’t recommend that you run a 50-mile race unless you REALLY want to, but do challenge yourself in new ways. You are more capable than you ever thought possible. The mind is more powerful than the body. I felt strong and determined the entire way, but only because I told myself that I could do it. I didn’t let myself think otherwise.

JFK 50 Medal

JFK 50 Medal

Running & Religion

I find peace in the nature that surrounds me.

I find peace in the nature that surrounds me.

I am often asked the question: “Why do you run?”  I used to give a generic response: “To stay fit and healthy.”  That is the truth, but it is no longer the reason why I run.  The real reason why I run is because running makes me a better person.  Everything I do during my runs transfers to other facets of my life.  There is a release of pressure and I become more centered and aware of what happens in other areas of my life.  I have the discipline and drive to wake up early and head out for a run whether it is 90 degrees with 100% humidity or 20 degrees and snowing.  I take on challenges I never imagined I could push through.   I endure and keep going even when I feel like quitting.

I have only been teaching at a Quaker school for 3 months and I still know next to nothing about Quakerism, but I do know one thing for sure:  I can choose my own thoughts during Meeting for Worship.  We sit in silence every Friday morning for about 30 minutes.   Honestly, at first I thought it would be impossible.  However, I had some previous experience teaching my students to sit silently since Maria Montessori was also an advocate of silent moments.  I still couldn’t fathom myself doing it, let alone my first graders.  Yet, it happened.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much silence I maintain throughout my longest runs.

Some people are baffled by the fact that I can run for 6 hours without music.  I suppose I just rely on my mind for entertainment.  Maybe it isn’t quite the same as sitting in silence and centering your mind, but I still reflect and build upon a higher level of awareness.  The refreshing part about it for me, is that I am not told what to reflect on.  There is no scripture or preaching.  However, there is joy in knowing that the colorful trees I run past or the sparkling lakes I gaze upon were placed here by an entity I can not see.  I use the gifts I have been given to contribute what I can.  I see value in upholding strong morals and showing kindness to others.  I don’t always get it right all of the time, but who does?

I have always been an open-minded individual.  Everyone has their own destination and they choose the best path to get themselves there.  We are lucky that we were given the freedom to create our own journey in this world.  I choose running as my place of solitude, as my connection to something that is greater than myself, as my “religion.”  It is not organized.  There is no book.  There is no leader.  It’s just me, my thoughts, the world I am running through and the possibility of something more.