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

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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…

 

 

Going the Distance

Paps

Paps

Well, it’s time I buckled down and did something a little different.  I am officially registered for the JFK 50 Mile.  My first ultra.  I will be going the distance… literally.  I guess I can only thank one of my clients for that.  She is training to do 100 miles so I figure that I have to aim for 50.  It’s the least I can do.

Running 50 miles for myself is great and all (okay, not sure why I used the word “great”), but I was feeling the urge to do something a bit bigger than myself.  I reflected on the times that I hiked or ran to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  It is a great cause and I was inspired by so many amazing people (still am inspired… always).  However, it is time for me to focus on another cause that is close to my heart.  I am proud to be a part of the military community as a veteran and as a spouse.  I am so thankful for everything that our military does and the sacrifices that are made on a daily basis.  I know that some of these “sacrifices” are great losses.  I must say that of course I am very proud of my Coast Guard family.  They are out there saving lives, keeping drugs from infiltrating our country and protecting the coasts.

It is heartbreaking when people who have served so faithfully are suffering.  There are veterans out there who have lost limbs, families, friends, employment, a home and/or pride.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to return home after serving in a war-torn country.  That kind of transition could never be easy.  Fortunately, there are organizations out there that try to help.  The one that caught my attention is Team Red, White & Blue.  Their mission is to help veterans connect to their community through active and social events.  So far I have learned that Team RWB sponsors many types of events related to running, cycling, fitness, climbing, etc.  I plan to check out the Virginia Beach group as soon as I move!

This very long 50 mile run will be dedicated to my Paps.  My Paps was a WWII Army veteran and a very special man.  My grandparents taught me to love traveling and I could never thank them enough for showing me so much.  Paps was one of the more active members of our family.  He would willingly walk for miles and had no concern about taking me on wild rollercoasters that made me throw up.  I got my “speed walking” syndrome from him (my husband hates it when I walk too fast).  I can’t wait to get back to running on the beach so I can reflect on the many walks we shared along the beach.  There was one notable time when I pointed to a Coast Guard boat and said “Paps, I think I am going to join the Coast Guard.”  That took him (and me) by surprise.  It was some kind of premonition and I followed through.

Now I hope to give back in some small way.  Please check out my fundraising website if you are interested in helping out veterans who take full advantage of what Team RWB has to offer:  http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/heidiaponte/jfk50mile