Who said running 50 miles was hard? HA! It's ridiculously hard!
Who: Me, Matt, & A.J.
What: JFK 50 Miler
When: Nov. 20th, 7am
Where: Hagerstown, MD
Why: I wanted to see if I could run 50 miles. I know there are a lot of mega hard 50s out there (especially in the west), but those require a lot of walking. JFK is notorious for the long, dreaded, boring flat portion along the C&O canal, and other than the first part on the AT there is little walking required.
How: The story begins…
In the days leading up to JFK, I was not resting as well as I would have liked. Bryan and I flew to Austin, TX to attend The Running Event (TRE) as Endurasoak vendors.
|Bryan working the booth...|
We had a great time out there, made a few connections and sold a lot of Endurasoak to various specialty running stores. We spent all day every day on our feet, and got very little sleep. I also found it very hard to pass up the $3 margaritas and hoards of Tex-Mex restaurants.
|Trying not to look as exhausted as I felt...I think I failed.|
We made it home Friday at about 1pm, after less than 2 hours of sleep the night before. We did manage to squeeze in a 4 mile run along the lakefront path, but otherwise not a lot of running this week.
I cooked a pasta dinner Friday night for Matt, AJ and I (and did NOT do the dishes after dinner), and got busy getting my gear together. Saturday morning I woke up before 4am for the 3rd time that week, though the other times were to catch a plane. We had a quiet car ride to the Boonsboro high school where we were to pick up our bibs and wait for the fun to begin. I had one major butterfly moment, but otherwise my nerves were pretty calm.
|Weapon of choice: Salomon Wings2 + Gaitors (keeps the rocks out of your shoes)|
We sat on the floor in the gymnasium and watched as hundreds of runners crammed in to the gym waiting for the pre-race brief to start. I really got a sense for just how big this races was going to be. I saw a few familiar faces in the crowd and wished everyone good luck.
After the pre-race brief, all of the runners swarmed out of the gym and walked the 10 minutes to the starting line. It was amazing how crowded the start was, I felt like I was in a large-sized marathon. It was chilly at the start, I think around 38-40 (forgot to check). I was shivering in my shorts, singlet, and arm warmers…but was very thankful for wearing thick gloves and a headband.
|AJ, Matt, and I being super reflective|
Everyone was standing shoulder to shoulder, seemingly fighting for the best vantage point. The race finally started, I don’t even recall a countdown or any sort of announcement. I just remember everyone started running.
In a 50 mile race it seems fairly obvious that you should start off slow. I was amazed at how many people were clicking off a sub8 pace… no worries, I knew I would catch them later. Matt and I picked our way through the crowd, while AJ stayed back and did his thing. The first 3 miles of the race were on the asphalt, with very long hills going up, up, up. It was hard holding back, but knowing how many miles we had to go kept me in check.
Before hitting the 5k timing mat, another running friend caught up to us. Joe came down from Maine to run, and he was in great shape to have a killer time. We stuck together for a couple of miles, but once we hit the technical portion on the AT he was off. Matt and I finally walked our first hill around mile 5 or so, which was on an asphalt bike path going through the woods. There were tons of people leap-frogging back and forth, I had to practice considerable self restraint to let them all go. I took my first gel and lost a glove, but thankfully someone behind me shouted “glove” and I scooted back down to pick it up.
We started getting in to the technical section of the Appalachian Trail (AT), though my recollection of mileage is a little foggy. The first 100m on the singletrack was filled with rocks and a tricky downhill portion. I was frustrated with the people in front of me who were walking (C’mon people!), I just wanted to let my inner mountain goat out and run down the rocks. Eventually Matt and I were able to pick off runners, though we were careful not to be too aggressive too early.
Finally my inner mountain goat was fed up with running, and I started getting frustrated with all the rocks. It’s one thing to have giant slabs of rock that you can run on, it’s another thing to have 6”-10” rocks jutting out of the ground, waiting to break your ankle. Unfortunately these were the latter. A couple of girls came up behind me and I let them pass, I realized that I was starting to get sloppy with my footing, and I didn’t want to force anything. This was not a good section to find yourself face planting on the ground. (later we learned someone had a really bad fall and busted their face brutally on the rocks).
To add to the frustration, we started passing the walkers who started at 5am. They were mostly really, really old folks who didn’t have the greatest hearing…but they were really good about trying to get out of the way. Sometimes. I was stoked to look at my watch and see that we were close to the aid station just after mile 9, where I knew Bryan would be waiting for us with our bowl of goodies. I was starting to get hungry, and was anxious to eat a cliff bar to avoid going in to calorie depletion too early in the race.
We came down a fire trail with big logs to leap over, and I had a blast shooting down them and hurdling the logs. Most people were a little more timid about it, but I didn’t care…I was having too much fun. We got held up behind a few runners coming down a couple steep switch backs, and they were going so slow I didn’t have any patience to wait for them to get down. I skirted up the side of the mountain and cut them off on the switchback, before racing down in to the open field of cheering spectators. It was amazing how many people were out there, hundreds if not more. It was a strange feeling to come out of the enclosed, quiet woods out in to a large, bright, wide open field roaring with noise.
I heard a friend yell my name, but never saw Bryan. I went over to the aid station and started to fill my water and got frustrated that I didn’t know where Bryan was. This was his first time to ever crew for one of my races, so I don’t think he realized that it’s impossible for runners to spot their families unless they really make themselves known. He seemed to figure it out and ran over to me when I was about ready to take off and offered my bowl of stuff. Which was still in the ZIPPED gallon bag. Now that I think about it, my reaction was pretty silly. I screamed at him to dump out the bag so I could get what I needed. I had heavy gloves on and couldn’t open a zipper, let alone rifle through the bag. He obliged, somewhat surprised at my reaction, and I grabbed my cliff bar before taking off through the woods again.
I was a little frustrated for a few minutes with Bryan, because I was afraid that he had no idea what he was doing. He’s always resourceful and an intelligent guy, so I didn’t try to micromanage him before the race. I started to get worried that he would forget my stuff at the other aid stations, or worse…he wouldn’t make it there before I made it through. I told myself to chill, since he was doing me a huge favor out there and I really shouldn’t be freaking out about it.
Miles 9.5-16 were very technical again. If it wasn’t a steep uphill, it was covered in rocks. To make matters worse the leaf coverage on the ground was significant. Most of the rocks were covered at least half way, if not all the way. We walked a couple of hills, never more than 30 seconds or so of walking at a time. Matt and I both admitted to being excited about the flat C&O canal portion up ahead. We knew the canal would get insanely boring, but we were starting to get sick of the congested trails and suicidal rocks.
Finally we came up to the dreaded switchbacks. We heard a lot of runners talking in anticipation of the steep switchbacks, so we really didn’t know what to think. I was looking forward to it in a sick, masochistic sort of way. Of course, once you’re down the switchbacks you’re done with the AT…so that was motivation enough. I thought I would run down them aggressively, but under control. Boy was I wrong!
The switchbacks were such sharp turns there was no chance to really run fast down them. There was one section that had a volunteer sitting at probably the steepest of the turns, and we joked that he was the catcher to make sure no one fell over the side. To make matters worse, the ground was still covered in rocks! C’mon! Finally, this seemed to be the most highly concentrated spot of 5am walkers and senior citizens. I give mad props to these folks for completing the 50 miler, and I am amazed that they made it down the trail in one piece. It was really hard passing them on the turns, but once I heard the roar of the crowd up ahead I took off and bullied my way down the mountain. I was careful to let the seniors have their space, but I wasn’t going to be walking in to the aid station.
With a hop, skip, and a giant leap I was out of the woods and on a trail that cut through a tunnel of spectators. I got a couple high fives from some local runner friends, and saw Bryan almost immediately. My previous fears were completely abated, and he showed he was more than up to the task for taking care of me. I felt like a jerk for yelling at him at the last aid station, and made a point to kiss him and shout “I love you!”. I also saw a good friend Ron who came all the way down from NH to help crew. I wonder if that had something to do with Bryan’s sudden improvement in race support ;) Ron’s been a pacer for multiple events, and as a runner himself he knows what we needed.
Without delaying any further, Matt and I took off through the trees and found ourselves on the canal. I was amazed at how fast the first 16 miles flew by on the AT…even with the tough technical sections. We tried to dial in to a 9:00 pace, and hoped to run that for the entire length of the canal (26.3 miles). We figured a 4 hour marathon was pretty manageable, and hoped to hold on for the final 8 miles.
I felt pretty frustrated for the first few miles on the canal. I felt every single mile that we ran. I was expecting a 9:00 pace to feel like nothing, just another long training run. What I didn’t expect was the tightness and muscle fatigue from the trail to make me feel so lousy. My legs weren’t working right, every step felt like an effort. I had to really focus on moving forward to keep my pace steady. I didn’t think I ran too hard on the AT, but my legs were telling me otherwise.
Matt took off to use the restroom at one of the aid station around mile 20, and I kept going knowing he would catch me. He was all bouncy and moving like he wasn’t feeling it at all. Bastard. I started focusing on not focusing, which was somewhat counterproductive. I heard a guy come up behind me and decided to keep up with him for a bit. We had a nice conversation and I completely forgot about how tight my legs were, but then he bailed to use the bathroom. Around mile 23 the path went by a camp site that had a port-a-potty, and I realized I had to pee really bad. This would be the first time I’ve had to pee in a race in a really, really long time. I decided that was a good sign since 50 miles requires a good amount of hydration.
I spent the next 5 miles wondering what happened to Matt, and hoping I would see him again. I casually chatted with folks who I was passing, and did a lot of leap-frogging with a couple of guys. There were plenty of aid stations, 1 almost every 2.5-3 miles. I saw Bryan again around mile 26 or so, and was stoked to see his smiling face. At that point the race became more about “how long until I see Bryan” instead of “how long until I finish”.
|No idea where this was, but thanks Carole for catching a shot!|
I hadn’t noticed, but my pace picked up after I lost Matt. That probably explains why he hadn’t caught up to me yet. I’m not sure when it happened, but my feet started to hurt really bad. Every step seemed to piss me off more and more, not quite the experience I had been hoping for. Interestingly enough, my feet usually hurt at the end of a road race but never in an ultra. I think the surface of the canal was packed enough to bother my sad size 7 feet.
My pace was really starting to drop, I started seeing 9:30s more and more frequently, with little motivation to try and get back on pace. Just when I had about given up on myself, I heard someone come up behind me. I felt like I could match his pace, so I tried…and we started talking. Turns out I was in the presence of ultra-greatness, Ian Torrence himself. I remembered reading about his Western States 100 race earlier in the year, and knew he was in pretty bad shape to be jogging with me. He's also a coach for McMillan (yes, THE McMillan calculator people) and was at the event in Austin, TX that we were at.
Turns out it was my lucky day, as he was seriously suffering from hamstring issues. We ran together for quite a while, and I never again thought about my pace. He kept me right at a sub 9:00, and encouraged me to go for a sub8 finish. It seemed pretty reasonable, I was actually a few minutes ahead of the goal. He also thought I was close to the top 10 women, which was not exactly what I had wanted to hear.
|Ian pushing me along...|
JFK has a rule that the top 10 runners can’t have a pacer on the course, which meant that Bryan wouldn’t be allowed to run with me. I didn’t care at all about being in the top 10, but I didn’t want my results disqualified completely either. I was so looking forward to running with Bryan, we’ve been talking about it for weeks. He isn’t a runner, and even though he’s in incredible shape from his MMA training (yes, my husband the cage fighter), 12 miles was going to be a pretty long run for him. I never ask him to run with me in race…heck, I usually don’t even ask him to go to my races. Today was different though, I wanted my husband to run with me and see my struggle for the last few miles. That might sound like a strange admission, but I knew that he would see the side of me that showed I was a fighter. I also knew he’d have to put up with my eminently crappy mood, as it’s hard to run 38 miles and feel “chipper”.
While talking to Ian, I tried to think about how many women had passed me on the trail, and in turn how many women I had passed. I felt like there had to be way more than 10, because there were many who I had not yet caught up to. Realizing that “close to top 10” could mean top 15 or top 20, I just hoped it was the latter, or that a race organizer would tell me my placing.
|Random spectators along the course|
Coming in to the aid station at mile 38 where I could finally see Bryan, a race organizer (someone on a bike and a safety vest) told me I was #18. AWESOME! I was relieved to hear that I didn’t have the pressure of being in the top 10, and Bryan could run with me without the fear of punishment. Bryan jumped up and down when he saw me, and hopped right in stride when I came by. We had joked that hopefully my pace wouldn’t be faster than 9:30 by the end of the race, because he wasn’t sure how fast he could run for 12 miles.
My feet were still hurting a lot, and my legs were getting pretty tight, but otherwise I was just excited to have B with me. I was surprised to see Joe up ahead, who was being paced by Ron. Joe had a tough stretch on the canal, so he was just bringing it home at this point. We ran with them for a brief stretch, but I realized that we needed to pass them in order for me to stay in my groove.
Shortly after leaving Joe & Ron, Bryan chatted me up on the many hours of waiting and watching runners. He was asking me all kinds of questions, such as what do I want to do for dinner? I was started to feel completely exhausted, and all I could say was “no”. I eventually said “no questions”. I just couldn’t converse. I was grateful for his energy, but I wasn’t very talkative.
A girl came up behind us (green shorts girl) and tried to jump in to our conversation, but there was something weird about her. Bryan and I just looked at each other and didn’t say anything. As we were coming up to an aid station, she said that she didn’t want to be caught running with a pacer because it might DQ her for the top 10. I said I didn’t think we were in the top 10, she said she didn’t either but wasn’t sure. I kindly pointed out that if she didn’t want to get in trouble she could run a few steps behind us. She replied with “This IS my pace”. Right. Whatever. I ended up pushing it a little faster because I didn’t want to be around her, something weird about the b!tchy vibes she was sending off.
Bryan and I came out of the canal portion (42 miles down!!!) and I immediately felt like crap. I was already feeling the out-of-body running experience, but when we hit the asphalt I wanted to quit. I wanted to crawl in to a ditch and cry for a while, maybe get back up and hitch a ride with one of the cows or something. I couldn’t get anymore food/gu down, and I was feeling bloated from water. I had been taking electrolyte pills, but it may not have been enough.
The miles ticked by soooo slow. I wanted to walk so badly, but I only allowed myself to walk up the steep hill straight out of the canal. The 8 miles on the road were very rolling, and I imagined it would’ve been a fun run had it not been after running 42 miles already. There were cow pastures everywhere, though my eyesight was less than stellar. At one point I asked Bryan if a field was filled with sheep or rocks…turns out it was rocks, but I couldn’t tell. Looked like sheep to me!
They had aid stations just about every 2 miles, and I felt like I was killing myself to get there. I was running anywhere between 10:30-11:30 pace, never walking. I forgot to push the lap button on my watch after coming off the canal, so it’s hard to say just how slow I ran. The volunteers at the aid station were really nice, but I completely lost my ability to speak. They tried to ask if I wanted anything, and I couldn’t reply. I would just walk over to the Gatorade, drink that and continue on. Would’ve been nice to eat, but it wasn’t happening.
Each aid station was a repeat of the last, with me growing more and more demoralized. Bryan was so sweet, he commented on random things and just tried to keep me smiling. He could tell how frustrated I was getting because of how many people were passing us. I had been doing all the passing on the Canal, but now I was getting picked off like the last piece of pie after thanksgiving dinner. Mentally I was a wreck. Every mile felt like 10 miles, and it seemed like the race would never end. My feet hurt so bad, and the tightness in my legs was starting to make my form pretty terrible.
I heard a familiar voice behind me, and Ian came up along side pacing a new victim. He looked at me and asked how I was doing, but I didn’t need to answer. He could see it in my face and in my form. He encouraged me to just bring it in, whatever it takes to cross the finish line. It amazed me how much worst I felt at miles 42-44 than I did at mile 40-42. It made no sense.
After what felt like and eternity, I saw the marker with 3 miles to go. Then 2. 2 miles. In my head, I knew that was close…in my legs, it felt like I may as well be running to Canada. Bryan mostly stopped talking, he ran behind me and I took comfort in hearing him breath. I just needed him with me, I wanted to share this day with him. He didn’t carry any gel for me, he didn’t get me water or pace me. He just ran behind me and let me run my race (or stagger to the finish).
Shortly after 1 mile to go, he left me to finish on my own. We decided he shouldn’t finish with me, because the finish line is reserved for those who have run the whole race. I knew he’d find me at the finish, and locked my legs in to a forced pace. I caught a glimpse of someone not too far behind me, and realized it was a chick. 2 of them actually. That’s it, no more passing Amy.
I don’t know how, but my legs found a 7:15ish pace for the last half mile. I wasn’t going to let anyone else catch me. As I neared the finish, all I could think about was how I would feel when it was over. Would I collapse on the ground? Would my legs lock up? Would I puke? I heard the announcer say “Top 10 female coming in right now folks, looks like it’s going to be a fight to the finish!”. Crap. Serious crap for 2 reasons. 1- That means the chicks are hot on my tail. 2- That means Bryan was illegally pacing me.
I tried not to think about the 2nd reason, and kicked it in like I’ve never done before. It was maybe 50m that I really had to sprint, and my watch registered a 3:49 pace. I know that isn’t possible, but the point is that I literally sprinted my ass off. Definitely a sub 6 pace…
Finish Time: 8:10:46, 9:49 pace. 113/1014 finishers.
Anyways, I crossed the finish and the RD congratulated me on being the 10th woman and commented on my impressively strong finish. I thought to myself, if only he knew how poorly I ran for the last 8 miles…3 women passed me on the road.
|The Finish Line|
I stood still while they took off my chip, refilled my handheld, and collapsed on the grass. I was in a numb state of disbelief. I ran 50 miles. In 8:10. Before I could reflect any further on the race, the drama began…
I saw the 2 women who came in behind me talking to the RD, wispering furiously and pointing in my direction. I then saw them wispering to green shorts girl, and looking at me repeatedly. Eventually their gaggle broke up, but I knew what they were doing. They wanted to disqualify me. I was crushed. I didn’t care about being in the top 10. You don’t win anything, just a trophy. It’s not like it’s worth money. I ran my first 50 miler, wanted to experience it with my husband, and they wanted to disqualify me because they didn’t crack the top 10. Unbelievable.
I realize JFK has its rules, and I broke them. To be fair, they did not tell us who was in the top 10 on the course. If they’re going to enforce such a ridiculous rule, they should be more diligent telling the leaders what place they are in. Also, why top 10? I can understand the top 3, but there is a HUGE difference between my level of running and the top 3 women. I don’t think it’s fair to impose those regulations on the non-cash winners.
Anyways, as the gaggle of middle school girls disbanded, I called out to one of them and asked what the problem was. She snapped at me that I clearly had a pacer and I should be disqualified. Here’s the weird thing…she actually said “he’s very good looking, but it’s not allowed”. WTF? Anyways…
The funny part is that she thought SHE got 10th place, and I was 9th. She was actually fighting for the other girl who got 11th place. They figured if they got me DQ’d they could get her a trophy. As much as I wanted to bask in the glory of finishing my race, I sat in the grass distraught that they were being so horrible. Who the heck cares? Am I missing something here? Ron and Joe finished about 10 minutes after me, and I explained to Ron and his friend Meredith what was going on.
The cougar who had the hots for B saw me and told me that I’m in luck because I can’t be DQ’d if I never got red-carded on the course. Somehow the way she said it I felt like I was a piece of scum, not someone who just finished a 50 miler. How on earth do these women have the energy to be so malicious?
It wasn’t long before I started shaking and chattering out of control. I was absolutely freezing. My teeth wouldn’t stop clanging together, it was obvious I needed to get out of the cold and in to warm clothes. Bryan still hadn’t found me, but Ron took charge of finding him and getting my clothes bag. Meredith helped me stagger in to the gymnasium, where I was somewhat disappointed to find that there were no soft surfaces to lay/sit on. Who wants to sit on a wood floor after running 50 miles? The alternative of standing wasn’t much better, so I opted for the wooden bleachers.
Even sitting in the bleachers I saw some of the women talking about me. It brought me back to middle school, where all of the girls gang up on some helpless victim for whatever trivial reason. I realize I was in the wrong to have Bryan run with me, but I stood my ground that they did not make a point of telling us our placing, and the last I heard I was # 18 (and keep in mind I was passed by more women after that). Clearly they had no idea who was where. The only women they care about are the top 3, and I was an hour and a half behind them. I kept thinking, if they had just run faster than me they wouldn’t have to try to get me DQ’d…
Matt made it in a little while later, and I was happy to see he was in good spirits. He always seems to be in better shape than me after a race, but I think it’s because he started walking a lot more during the race. I went for broke, and I found it.
|Matt and his weird red eyeball|
I took a warm shower in the locker room (it’s freaking amazing to take a shower at the finish line, I tell you what…) and changed in to clean clothes. I tried eating a quesadilla, but only got about half of it down before I knew I had to call it quits.
The awards ceremony finally started and after giving props to all of the speedy men, it was our turn. They called me up first to get my trophy, and it was clear that they didn’t care at all about the 7-10 women finishers. They spent a lot of time talking about the top 4 women, and all I could think was please quit talking so I can sit down!!! So there, I got my trophy…just wait until someone reads this blog and reports me to the JFK RD, and asks me to overnight my trophy to the woman who finished behind me. I realized that the woman who thought she was #10 was probably furious that she was actually 11, and had she known that at the finish line I bet she would’ve forced the RD’s hand and gotten my trophy.
|Top 10 ladies (minus whoever went home already)|
Anyways, the drama is over. I’m a little crushed that my experience from this race left me with the impression that ultra women can be ultra b!tches. Maybe you agree with those women that I should be DQ’d, but this is my blog and not yours.
|Go ahead, take it from me. Just try.|
Just when we were starting to get worried about AJ, he came in the gym. I was ecstatic to see that he finished. His Achilles was majorly jacked up, and we all thought he was going to have to call it quits around 20. He hasn’t been able to run more than 15 miles in well over a month, it wasn’t looking like he could finish a 50. Not only did he finish, but he finished in just under 10 hours (9:59!). So awesome, we all did it!
|AJ's pizza platter|
We went out to dinner later that night, where I was sad to learn that it’s almost impossible to eat after such a hard run. I couldn’t keep much food down that night, and the next day wasn’t much better. I woke up feeling hungover on Sunday, which suck when you haven’t even been drinking! I had a severely tight hamstring that wouldn’t allow me to straighten my right leg at all, which made walking really complicated. It is now Tuesday and my hammy is markedly better, with some improvement from the tummy department. I’ve Endurasoaked twice, and who knows how long I’ll wait before I go for my next run.
The icing on the cake:
Bryan presented me with a plaque at dinner, that is somewhat hilarious and extremely sweet. It’s hard to get a picture without a glare, but it essentially says:
“10 in 2010” with a list of the races I’ve done, and then….
“Hell we may as well make it 11….”
Even though Bryan clearly just gave me permission to run another race before the end of the year, I think I’m more than content with how this year shaped up ;)