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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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

 

Running is Never Boring

Most of the time I only only competing with myself.  In this case, I used all of the remaining energy I had to pass the guy right behind me.  In response to whatever he said that annoyed me, I activated my fast twitch fibers and showed him.

Most of the time I am only competing with myself. In this case, I used all of the remaining energy I had to pass the guy right behind me. In response to whatever he said that annoyed me, I activated my fast twitch fibers and showed him.

There is always a new challenge waiting around the corner.  I know most people would assume that you just go out and run and there isn’t much more to it.  Well, those people are obviously not runners.

Do you remember when you took that first step after you decided to find out what running was all about?  It was an accomplishment to run one mile without walking.  Then you moved on up to the ranks of the 3-mile runners.  And hey, if you could make it 3 miles, then why not sign up for your first 5K?  It becomes almost addictive once you have been at it for a while.  At first glance, it might seem like these runners posses more Type-A personality traits, but just because you might not be hard-core competitive doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the new challenges that running brings.  I encounter many runners who are in it for the fun and social aspect.  They team up with a buddy or a group and find new routes to tackle or new races to finish.  Running is a sport that is well suited for all personality types.

The challenge might be to find a race that offers the most swag or maybe a race that is in a desired destination.  Whatever keeps you running, right?  Why not keep running fun by finding races that allow you to do a bit of wine tasting at the finish line or have zombies chasing you down the street?  Sure, these challenges don’t suit everyone’s desires, but those runners who love the entertainment are definitely not bored.

I know I don’t fall in that category because I am pretty certain I have some Type-A personality traits in my blood. I enjoy a bit of competition and it is usually with myself (or the woman in my age group who I am trying to catch up to and pass).  My first few races were all about the fun and socializing, but then I started to challenge myself with new personal records.  I ran my fastest 5K, 8K, 15K and half marathon.  I could always run faster if I trained hard enough.  Yet, before I got bored with the fast goals, I decided to focus on more variety.  I started participating in triathlons.  My love of running only blossomed as I realized that I could swim a mile, ride my bike 56 miles and still finish a half marathon (not in record time, but pretty darn close).

Then it was back to a focus on running.  I had my eye on achieving my fastest marathon.  I stayed the course and was able to move beyond my goal and achieve a time that I never thought possible.  And why not run another marathon 3 weeks later… this one with a 2,000 foot climb.  It was that marathon that brought me to where I am now: enjoying nature and all of its beauty.  Might as well throw in the challenge of running up endless hills to the tops of peaks.  I thought about the trails in my own backyard.  I’m here, in Colorado, so why not take advantage of what nature has to offer?

My next challenge does have something to do with speed.  A much slower speed up and down hills, over rocks, through forests, in snow and over ice.  Yet, slow would not be a new and exciting challenge all by itself.  It needs to be combined with distance.  So, my next goal is to run an ultramarathon… 50 miles to be exact.

At this rate, I don’t think I will ever get bored with running.  There are so many new routes to try, new races to travel to, new distances to explore, faster speeds to tackle and many more new running buddies to acquire along the way.