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 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.

Farewell Colorado

One of my first trail runs was Centennial Cone.  It was 12 miles of beauty (and hill torture).

One of my first trail runs was Centennial Cone. It was 12 miles of beauty (and hill torture).

I didn’t know any better when I trained for my first marathon while living in Florida.  I had no problem with waking up at 4:00 or 5:00 AM in order to squeeze in a long run before the sun started beating down on me, causing a greater risk for heat stroke.  I was pretty content running on the wide sidewalks through my suburban neighborhood most days, with the occasional jaunt to the riverfront or beach.  Hills consisted of group workouts at the two bridges in downtown Jacksonville with the cars driving close by.  Breathing in exhaust and ignoring honking horns just became standard.  I didn’t complain much.  I made many great friends while running in Florida and I had many firsts that I will never forget.

When I moved to Colorado I knew that the first thing I had to do was join a running club.  It’s really the only way I know how to easily make friends.   I googled Golden, CO running club and the first thing that popped up was “Foothills Running and Cycling Club.”  Well, that sounded just fine to me.  I contacted someone named Rachael who seemed pretty nice through e-mail.  She was even sweeter in person.  I didn’t feel too hesitant or nervous about showing up to my first track workout.  I immediately felt welcome and jumped right in.  Since I like to push myself I tend to be drawn to people who will challenge me.  Back in Jacksonville, it was the girl who continued to run hill repeats while everyone else was bringing it home.  Here, it was a married couple who flew down the track like nobody’s business.  I tried to keep up and then made it clear that I had just moved from sea level.  I think I mentioned that about 10 times during the first track workout.

It all blossomed from there.  I was quick to make new friends and spend Saturday mornings going on long runs with a group followed by some chit chat at the local coffee shop.  I was still content running along the roadside or on paved trails.  It was a bit different from Florida because I had some nice views during most of my runs (but not all).  Even though I became a wiz at running bridges in Jacksonville, I was a bit shocked by the lack of flat in my new town.  My running terrain changed from completely flat to very hilly.  I couldn’t even run out my door without encountering a very steep hill.  I complained a little, but then I eventually just went with it and hills became easier.  This time, I had to go out of my way to find a flat route.  I just decided that I wouldn’t be able to run an “easy” run anymore.

I suppose I also had to adjust to the climate change.  I remember running a half marathon when it was freezing outside.  I had to buy new running clothes because I couldn’t just go out in shorts and a tank top.  Yet, for some reason I decided that I would train for my first half ironman during the winter (since the race was in May).  I am still not sure how I managed to ride my bike in between snowfalls.  It was quite the accomplishment when I finished the race.  And to make it even more amazing, all of my running friends surprised me at my house afterwards in order to celebrate.

Next, I decided to continue my focus on running for a while and took a break from the bike and pool.  I continued to run on the road and paved trails through town.  I set a personal record on one marathon and then managed to climb over 2,000 feet during another marathon (while still finishing faster than any marathon I ever did at sea level).  Then something happened.  I set foot on dirt.  Or ice.  Or snow.  Whatever.  I just mean that I went outside of my element for a minute and was taken by surprise.  I started running away from town.  Away from the hustle and bustle.  I ran in the foothills and in the mountains.  I fell in love with trail running.  I won’t say that it was a little too late, but I only wish I had more time on the trails.  I explored new trails and enjoyed every moment of every run.  I can’t say that about all of my runs on pavement.

Then came the moment when I had to say goodbye.  My last trail run in Colorado was one of my favorites, just 5 minutes from my house.  I liked it because it was close and relatively easy, yet offered some stunning views.  It also didn’t have rattlesnake warning signs posted (even though I am sure they lived there, but they must not be a huge problem if signs aren’t posted).

I will miss the peace I felt while running immersed in nature.  I will miss the variety of terrain and challenges that come with trail running.  I will miss exploring new places off the beaten path.  I will miss it immensely.  I left a piece of my running heart in Colorado.  I never really new what was out there until I met a Colorado trail.

Kind of funny to read back during the time when I was saying hello to Colorado in my “Hello Golden, Colorado!” post.

Trail Race Ups & Downs

Breathtaking view from the top of one of those "Wake-up" hills.  Collegiate Peaks 25 miler.

Breathtaking view from the top of one of those “Wake-up” hills. Collegiate Peaks 25 mile.

My 25-mile trail race on Saturday was definitely full of ups and downs (and I mean that literally).  I don’t really remember ever running on a flat surface.  Okay, well maybe there was that sand pit we ran through.  That might have been flat.  Oh, nevermind, it was a slight incline.  I kind of felt like I was running on the beach in the mountains.  Very odd.

I only started getting serious about running trails a few months ago.  Winter just seemed like the perfect time to start: deep snow, ice, wind and below freezing temperatures all seemed like good reasons to start learning something new.  Honestly, I think Saturday’s trail race was the first time I ran on a trail that was mud-free, ice-free and warm.  I didn’t know quite what to do when the temperatures rose higher than what I was accustomed to.  I began to worry that I would pass out from heat exhaustion.  Then I realized that the dizziness might actually be related to the extra 3,000 feet in elevation.

Training for an almost-marathon on mountain trails was pretty interesting.  You see, I had some time restrictions when it came to my training.  I was doing the temporary single parenting gig during my training so I had to improvise.  My long runs did manage to get up to 20 miles, but I had to incorporate both roads and trails in order to not spend all day out on a trail.  Sometimes I got in some good elevation, other times it was only a small incline.

I did manage to get out on the trail quite often, but it just so happened to be on a weekday morning.  The bad thing about that time is that NOBODY is out on the trails during regular work hours (my work hours aren’t regular).  Even fewer people will actually go out on trails during the winter.  It was quite amusing to suddenly see people come out of the woodwork on a day when the temps reached 60 degrees.  So, it was calm and peaceful, but very EERY to be out on the trails alone.  Needless to say, I ran a fast pace on those days.

Yep, training was quite fun, but I finally ended up at that starting line wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I looked around at a crowd that I was not familiar with.  Trail runners are a different breed.  Just go to a trail race and you will see for yourself.  I didn’t mind being there, but I kind of felt slightly out-of-place.  I am pretty sure I looked like a road racer.

The next thing I knew the mass of 300 runners was moving forward.  I stayed towards the back for a while until I got my rhythm.  We ran on the road for a bit until we crossed the river and started heading up.  I started passing people and said to myself (as I always do): “you better slow down, you will be dead at the end.”  I didn’t listen to myself.  I really hate passing people and then having them pass me later on.  However, it appears that happens quite often on a trail race.  Yet, I must say that the funniest thing is that when everyone comes to a hill, they stop running and start walking.  Everyone just does this in unison.  But these are not the tiny little hills you might see in one of your road marathons.  Nope, some of these hills in the mountains are just plain nasty.

When I came to “Infant Wake-Up Hill” I wasn’t so sure about the first part of the name.  “Infant” was not fitting.  “Wake-up” definitely was appropriate.  That hill was so damn steep that I could barely even walk up it.  I was hunched over like some kind of sick animal.  I even stopped to take a picture so it looked like that was the only reason why I was stopping.  But the top, the top was amazing.  The one great thing about going up is the view.  Breathtaking.  I know some people look forward to going down, but I am not a good downhill runner.

Thanks for waking me up!  Now it was some minor (ha!) ups and downs to the sand box.  After that, it was the “Lenhardy Climb Full-On Wake-up Hill.”  I don’t know who Lenhardy is, but he sucks.  Yes, I totally understood the “Full-On Wake-up.”  I was freakin’ awake by the time I got to the top of that one.  I was also nearly dead.  As I started the descent I made a friend and was forced to make it a fast downhill.  Then I just couldn’t keep up anymore so I said “I need to slow down now, but good luck to you!”  I know she was only about 20 years old so I didn’t feel so bad.  More ups and downs and then I came upon one of the only sections that was semi-flat if you can call it that.  I was just happy knowing that the city was still below us so we had to go down at some point.

And then there it was!  The Arkansas River was next to me!  That river would lead me to the finish line!  At around mile 21.5 I had some issues with math.  My mind must have been toast because I looked at my Garmin and told myself that I only had 2.5 miles left.  I seriously was counting down.  Soon, it was 2 miles and I was so excited.  At one point I finally realized my mistake.  It wasn’t over until mile 25.  At mile 22 I still had 3 miles left… not 2 miles!  That was quite the downer.  On the upside, I didn’t hit the wall that I usually experience in a road marathon.  I don’t think my body knew what was going on at that point.  It had been through too much torture, so what was a few more miles of mostly downhill?  I just let gravity take me.  And I had passed some dude at mile 24 and I didn’t want him to pass me so I had to run down really fast in order to stay ahead of him.  Whatever it takes, right?

That was freakin’ hard, but I will gladly do it again.  It just felt so good afterwards (well, my mental state felt good).  It might not have been fun at the time, but that was so much more fun than running 26.2 miles through downtown Denver.

Gosh darn it.  The problem is that I am moving at the end of the month to a place with no mountain trails.  “Run on the beach” they say.  It’s just not the same.  I won’t be able to climb over 3,000 feet during a 25 mile run on the beach.