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.



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.

A New Distance!

Belmead Trailfest 50K

Belmead Trailfest 50K

I love it when my clients reach new milestones, whether it be running 3 miles without stopping or running their first 16-mile training run.  It is amazing to find out what our bodies can do with each extra mile or two we add on to our longest run ever.  They get to that point that they had doubted just weeks before.  You feel so exhausted at the end of a long run, that you are not sure how in the world you will be able to make it even longer the next time around!

I have always felt tired at the end of a marathon.  I never imagined going beyond the 26.2 miles because I didn’t see any reason to do anything quite that crazy.  26.2 miles seemed crazy enough.  Yet, you hit the mark so many times that you aren’t sure what you should be doing next to keep yourself challenged.  Don’t get me wrong, a marathon is always challenging but sometimes I would find myself wondering whether or not I could push myself farther.

Then I took on a client who had a goal to run 100 miles.  I have done my best to guide her, but I know that the most meaningful advice can come from personal experience.  However, I am not ready to run 100 miles just yet, so I am focused on the JFK 50-mile run in November.  In preparation, I signed up for a 50k (31 miles).

That 50k came and went like any other training run.  When I woke up that morning, I only thought of it as another day of training for the 50.  It’s good not to hold high expectations when you have to keep yourself intact for the main event.  My most recent run two weeks prior had been 24 miles so 31 wasn’t too much out of the way.  I tried to be excited about the fact that I was running my first official “ultra” but it was hard to know how running 31 miles was going to be any different from running 26.2 miles.

Well, to start with, it is done at a much slower pace.  Not only are most ultras on trails with hills, but you just have to slow down or else you will collapse before you can make it to the finish.  Only crazy elite runners who do ultras for a living can actually run an entire ultra.  If you aren’t spending time walking, then you aren’t doing it right and you might as well throw in the towel.  As I hit the ground running (literally) I knew what my pace needed to be and what it would probably end up being.  I hit my goal right on for the first two 10-mile loops, but then it significantly dropped from there.  No matter what you try to do, you can’t keep yourself from slowing down.  It’s possible that if you are smart enough and patient enough to take scheduled walk breaks right from the starting line, then you might be able to find some consistency.  Yet, I tend to power out and then burn out.  At that point, it doesn’t matter how much you try to eat.  I ate religiously, but still slowed down.  I ingested pretzels, gels, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a granola bar, m&m’s, starburst, Gatorade, ginger ale, a banana, banana chips and potato chips (hey, I did run through lunch), but I still drained the energy tank dry.  Surprisingly, I never got sick from eating and drinking all of that so I must have been on the right track.  However, I started to get tired of eating right around mile 27.  It makes me wonder how I will keep eating during the 50.

I know that 5 hours and 53 minutes seems like a very long time, but it actually moved along quite quickly.  You probably wonder what someone would think about for so long?  Well, at first I was annoyed by so many people talking during the first 10-mile loop, but that quickly dissipated during the second loop and I was often left running alone.  At certain points along the trail I would have to pay very close attention to the green tape on the trees marking the trail.  I was determined not to make a wrong turn.  During the first loop, I wanted to make sure I knew the trail very well because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to see the tape during my third loop when I might be running in a foggy haze (kind of like a drunken stooper).  So, not getting lost kept me occupied for the most part.  Competition also kept me in the game.  I would find a runner and spend about 5 miles trying to pass him or her.  At other times, I would mutter obscenities when a runner chose to tailgate me for 5 miles. If I finally made the attempt to pass, then I had to engage my fast-twitch fibers to stay well ahead and not fall victim to the dreaded re-pass.

By the time the third loop came around, I was a bit on edge.  Then, it must have been my lucky day because a huge black snake slithered right in front of me and I screamed at the top of my lungs.  No one heard me.  I might as well have been out in the middle of the jungle.  I was in fear for the next 3 miles as I ran through the cornfields, but then I could have cared less if a snake tried to bite me or even if a bear came bursting through the trees.  When I heard rustling in the bushes, I would imagine myself screaming at a bear who made the mistake of getting in my way “Hey Bear!  You better move the F*** out of my way or else I will kick your A**!”  Yes, I was thinking happy thoughts at around mile 25.

My run started to turn into a shuffle.  I still managed to run the flats and keep the uphills at a decent hiker pace.  The downhills were dreadful.  I thought my legs were going to give out.  A couple of times I nearly ate dirt (or rock) and I only imagined what would have become of me if I didn’t catch myself.  One of those times I would have been sprawled out on the bridge.  It wasn’t enough to hear BOTH of the runners behind me eat dirt within 2 minutes of each other.  As the guy approached me from behind, I clearly stepped off to the side and let him pass.  “Thank you” he said.  No, thank you buddy for getting very far away from me so you don’t knock me down.  It’s funny how your legs stop working properly right around mile 28.  They seem to scuff every patch of earth and kick up every rock.

Something did happen at around mile 29.  I think I was either tired of running for hours or maybe I did have some kind of runner’s high.  I kicked up the pace (by a few milliseconds I’m sure, even though it felt like I was running 2 min/mile faster).  It’s funny how you can tell your mind you are going faster when you are still just moving like a snail.  Whatever makes you feel good, right?

I was hurting when I crossed the finish line, but the pain didn’t last too long.  I moved around like an old lady for a few hours, but then I felt pretty darn good considering what I had just put my body through.  I was pleased with the run and it definitely was “easier” than I expected.  I won’t use that word lightly, but I really thought I was going to mentally and physically hit a giant brick wall at some point.  However, the key was not to think like that while running.  I kept my mind on other things (like yelling at bears or karate kicking snakes).  I felt confident about my training up to that point and I knew that I had a handle on my hydration and fueling.  The rest of it was all mental.  A 50k is definitely a good distance.  I will let you know how I feel about 50 miles…



Running the Road to Greatness

Hope PassIt takes a special kind of person to set a goal that involves running 100 miles straight, starting at over 10,000 feet in elevation and following a trail that winds up and over passes and through forests, valleys and rivers. It takes someone who is strong, determined, motivated, disciplined and focused. It takes someone who can overcome physical challenges and mental barriers. It takes someone who has the will to run.

As a runner, I have met so many amazing people who have changed the way I view life. Runners are remarkable people on and off the trail (or road). I will even go so far as to give myself a little credit here. I used to be just okay and a somewhat decent person. Then I started running and I became more than just okay. It took time, lots of running and other changes in my life, but I am finally proud of who I am. Of course we all have things we can work on and I am definitely not perfect by any means. I always think about how I can better myself and I do struggle to not be so concerned with how others view me.

However, I can confidently say that I am strong, determined, motivated, disciplined and focused. These qualities do not just apply to my running. They apply to my life. They apply to how I work, take care of my family, handle problems and interact with others. I take a challenge and run with it (sometimes literally). I still get nervous about whether or not I am doing it right, but I have more confidence than I ever had before. When I make a mistake, I reflect and move on. If I fail, I make a promise to never quit and find another way to succeed.

The runners I know are awesome friends. Most of them share my values and outlook on life. Their arms are always wide open and their hearts are always warm. When they fall, they stand up, dust themselves off and move on at a faster pace. When you fall, they usually laugh at you first, but then they hold out their hand, pull you up and tell you to keep your ass moving.

Sometimes we miss a training run or don’t finish a race we start, but our heart is always set on achieving more and becoming a better person than who we were when we first started. It’s not about the amount of miles completed, but the quality of those miles completed. So, whether your goal is to run around the block without stopping or to run 100 miles, you are in the same state of mind. You are the person who is strong, determined, motivated, disciplined and focused.   It doesn’t take 100 miles to prove that, but it does take an inward glance, a desire to be something more and an acceptance that you will follow through no matter what and no matter how long it takes to get there.