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