An old ultramarathon saying: “If you’re feeling good, don’t worry. It won’t last.”
This is so true.
Until last Saturday, I’d never run further than 26.2 miles at a time. But I’d been reading about Badwater, the Leadville 100, the Western States 100, the JFK50 miler and other ultras for several years and thinking about trying one. Marathon and Beyond is my favorite running magazine. Every issue highlights a different race. It made me wonder if ultras were for me.
But I never had to face reality, because I could never fit one into my schedule. This year, I decided to force it, by cramming the JFK50 miler in between the NYC Marathon on November 6th and the beginning of my Ironman training cycle on December 1st.
Since I didn’t have time to train for an ultra with the Beijing ITU Worlds in September, Kona in October and the NYC Marathon in early November, I compromised: I’d run the 50 miler on November 19th, but not race it; I’d generally rely on my Kona conditioning, pretend the NYC Marathon was my last long run, and use the JFK50 for rebuilding my base for 2012.
My primary goal was to finish it without an injury. My secondary goal was to have fun.
It appears I made my primary goal: no injuries during the race and, two days later, no injuries have emerged. As for the secondary goal: the race was totally fun. Except when it wasn’t.
What made the race very special for me was my crew: Sadj and Bob Bartolo. They were there at the Weverton Cliffs with my PBJ, chips, pretzels and fluids; they were at mile 27.1, when I needed antacids; they were there at mile 38, where I needed more and bigger antacids; and they were there at the finish. Wearing yellow coats so I could spot them, they were a sight for sore eyes, tired legs and aching feet. Each time I saw them, my spirits soared. And when I took off, I knew it’d be about two more hours of running before I saw them again. But they kept me going.
Whether it’s fair or not, or true or not, I put some measure of responsibility for this insanity on Rick Schofield. (An engineer by training, at Clearwater 2010 he also persuaded me I should shave down for triathlon. Thanks to Rick, I’ve since cut maybe four seconds off my Ironman time and maybe several years off my marriage. My wife Gail not only doesn’t understand triathlon or ultramarathons, she is very suspicious of a 53-year-old man who all of the sudden starts shaving his arms and legs.)
In any event, Rick and I came to some sort of mutual understanding that we’d both do the JFK50. And there was no backing out. And we’d have fun. Except when we weren’t.
I also decided unilaterally that I’d run with him. And if and when he surged, I’d follow.
The course itself is spectacular. It begins near the high school in Boonsboro, Maryland, where you start on the road, then climb 2.5 miles up to the Appalachian Trail, gaining 1,172 feet in the first 5.5 miles. Except for a long uphill stretch on a Fire Road, you run 13 miles on a very rocky and rolling stretch of the AT. (I would also call it scenic, but you put yourself in harm’s way if you take your eyes off the trail. It requires every ounce of focus and concentration on the trail to avoid a trip, a fall and a potentially serious injury).
At the end of the AT around mile 15.5, you descend steeply on a series of switchbacks on the Weverton Cliffs and drop onto the C&O Canal towpath. The next 26.3 miles westward are pancake flat along the bank of the Potomac River, until you turn north for the final 8 mile run (walk or crawl) to the finish line at Williamsport, Maryland. For those not lucky enough to have Bob and Sadj as their crew, there are fully stocked aid stations at miles 4 and 10 along the AT, and then about every 3-4 miles thereafter. There are, believe it or not, enough portapotties along the 50 mile course. The volunteers are unbelievable and the organization is Vigorito-like.
I drove out Friday afternoon, arriving at the Clarion Hotel in Hagerstown for packet pick-up. Rick was already there with his father; Deb Saltz and Matt Mace arrived while I was there. Ultra expos are pretty low key affairs. There may have been 2 or 3 tables selling stuff, but it seemed more like a high school reunion. Everyone seemed to know each other. They don’t even bother with IDs at packet pick-up. We grabbed some pasta at Ledo’s Pizza and parted ways until the 6 a.m. rendezvous at Boonsboro.
Bob and Sadj took the “transition” bag I packed for miles 15, 27 and 38. As an ultra rookie, I had no idea what I’d need during the day so I packed two plastic bags containing my fluids (Accelerade and Nuun), extra socks, extra shirts, extra shoes and my nutrition (PBJ, salt and vinegar potato chips, chocolate and yogurt covered pretzels). And at miles 15, 27 and 38, they had it ready for me: the stuff was laid out for a quick transition each time. Even though I wanted to linger.
The forecast for race day wasn’t pretty: 27 degrees with a wind chill of 21. But it also wasn’t accurate: it was 36 degrees when we arrived at Boonsboro with light, almost non-existent, winds. During the race, it was near perfect, warming to the high 40s with light westerly winds and sunny skies. I wore a long sleeve shirt under the Mid Maryland tri top and was perfectly comfortable all day. I wore sweats along the AT because I thought I’d be cool going so slow; I dropped them at mile 15. I carried the two-bottle belt I use for long training runs, and stocked it with antacids, gels and other stomach stuff.
Up four hours before the start like usual to eat and stretch. But this was more relaxed, because I wasn’t racing. Instead of listening to Heart and Boston on the Ipod, I listened to Dan Fogelberg and Frank Sinatra. (The Sinatra is new thing; the NYC Marathon start music turned me Frank’s Way). A very strange morning; I’ve never been so relaxed before a race. I mean, before a run.
I made it to the Boonsboro HS gym by 6 a.m. for the 6:20 a.m. briefing, where I met Bob and Sadj. Michael Wardian was there, looking fast and relaxed. I saw at least six people carrying 2011 NYC Marathon bags, so I felt that I was in good, if not equally crazy, company. Rick, my self-selected running mate, was nowhere to be found.
At 6:40, the Race Director steered us out the door and about 1000 yards into town and the starting line. I was so relaxed, I missed the start. Bob, Sadj and I sauntered down together, but I couldn’t find Rick. When the gun went off, I was about 300 yards away. Whatever. What’s another 300 yards and a couple of minutes in a 50.2 mile day?
When I got to what had been the starting line, Deb Saltz confirmed I was in the right place, although a bit tardy. I started to run easily up the hill to warm up. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, although in a fatalistic sort of way. About a mile in, Rick called my name when I passed him. Reunited, we started to run together. I was watching him carefully, expecting the Schofield surge at any moment.
Arriving at the top of the very long climb, we turned into the trail leading to the Fire Road and the Appalachian Trail. Not being in a rush, I decided to use the portapotties just before the first timing mat and I promised Rick I’d catch up. I was in and out in seconds (sometimes it’s good to be a guy), and I took off after him. But he was nowhere to be found.
After a mile or so, I feared that I was the victim of the Schofield Surge, so I picked up the pace passing all sorts of ultramarathoners on the trails, up the long Fire Road climb and back on the AT to the first waterstop around mile 4. So much for running with Rick. I’d later learn that he decided to jump into a portapotty seconds after I did; I came out first and left him behind. In any event, we never saw each other the rest of the day. Not being able to find him, and since waiting isn’t my thing, I decided to just run.
I cannot describe how difficult it is to run on that portion of the AT. It requires unbelievable concentration, excellent balance and a measure of good luck to avoid an injury from a fall. Rocks and roots are half concealed by the leaves. Climbing isn’t so bad, but the descents are crazy, and passing people is lunacy. (But most of us out there seemed to be lunatics anyway). I went down three times, but fortunately missed hitting my head on the rocks or spraining an ankle. I now understand why ultramarathoners wear trail shoes.
My pace was glacial on the trail: I was working hard to maintain 10 min/mile average pace. Part of the problem was the single track; it was hard to get around people. With my relaxed start, I began at the back of the almost 1,000 runner pack. The other problem was the terrain: you just couldn’t go too fast without straining a tendon or spraining an ankle. I settled in and tried to run easy, but remember thinking repeatedly “This is hard! And where is Rick anyway?”
It took me almost three hours to cover the 15.3 miles from the start to the Weverton Cliffs timing mat. Just after the mat, I found my loyal crew, Bob and Sadj, trailside. After a non-urgent “transition” where I traded my glasses for sunglasses, ditched the stocking cap and the sweat pants, and grabbed my lunch, I was off. I immediately ate some salty chips and started on the white bread PBJ (skipping the crust), but I carried the pretzels. The white bread has no fiber and metabolizes easily; the yogurt and chocolate pretzels settle my stomach and add some calories; and I’ve found I tolerate chips well while exercising. My stomach was holding up well at this point, probably because the pace was so slow on the AT.
I picked up the pace a little, but eventually settled in around 10:00 pace per mile. I planned a long slow distance type run, but the truth is, during 24 of the 26 miles along the river, I couldn’t run much faster if I wanted to. I think this was for three reasons: 1) my legs and feet were beaten up pretty badly after the 13 miles on the AT. For the first time ever, the soles of my feet hurt. My psoas was pissed and my IT bands were furious; 2) after a few miles, that old friend nausea returned and hung with me until about mile 39 or 40. After mile 25, I couldn’t take many calories. (I carried a plastic bag of those damn pretzels for miles until long after the chocolate and yogurt melted from the heat in my hands); and; 3) because I’d planned an easy run, I lost the mental battle before it even started. I spent much of the canal run thinking about how much I hurt, rather than about my pace and breathing, which is what usually carries me “into the zone.”
It was about mile 18 or 19 that reality hit home. I realized I’d been running well over three hours and, as a marathoner, I’m usually showering by now. I did the math. I had about five hours to go at this pace. At mile 27, I offered Bob and Sadj the understatement of the day: “This is hard.” They stocked me up with antacids and fluids, and I was off again.
The miles from the low to mid 30s were the hardest miles for some reason. The nausea surged and the pace must have slowed. The GPS lost the satellite and I fantasized I was running faster than I actually was. It started tracking again, but I was sure it was off. I was shocked (again) to reality when I discovered that it was right. I had another two miles to get to Bob and Sadj at mile 38.
Like clockwork, they were there and had me set up for a quick transition. I told them that maybe I’d just do the JFK38 this year, but they both gave me a hug and a friendly push and sent me on my way. This time I’d grabbed three mega Maalox tablets. That did the trick. By mile 39, I was already feeling better and got some calories down. Most of the guys I’d been running with started to fall behind, and, at mile 41.8, we turned off the towpath and onto the country roads for the 8 mile trek to Williamsport.
There’s a long hill at mile 42 and I adopted the ultra way: walk the hills. The energy loss isn’t worth the marginal time gains. I also found that a long stride walking did wonders for the IT band and hamstrings. By the time I got to the top, I felt pretty good. And, then the most amazing thing happened. I started to feel better and better, and to run faster and faster. The runners were pretty spread out by now, but they began to come back to me. For a few miles, I ran in the nines, then dropped to the eights, and even ran mile 49 at sub 8 pace. I focused on relaxing and deep breathing. I ran strong and easy around the corner into Williamsport and then to the uphill finish at mile 50. There were Bob and Sadj at the Finish Line. Just like at Lake Placid. Only better.
The last mile was, in many ways, the easiest of the day. It is so bizarre to feel so good after 45 miles (after feeling so rotten at 30). A lot of things happen to your mind and body in 50 miles and I’m not sure I understand exactly what or why yet.
My splits looked like a training run:
Mile 2.5 28:43 (including a late start and a long climb)
Mile 15.5 2:50:30 (the AT)
Mile 41.8 7:08:30 (turning off the canal)
Mile 50.2 8:29:44 (what’s with the .2 mile anyway?)
While my view may be jaundiced by the fact that I didn’t train for an ultra and I ran it two weeks after a marathon, I think an ultramarathon is simply harder than an Ironman. In an Ironman, you use different muscles in the bike and the swim, and you only have to run 26.2 miles after the bike! In an ultra, you pound those same muscles for 8 to God-knows-how-many hours.
The finish is at the Middle School in Williamsport, where you have access to hot showers and hot burritos by Mo’s. It was great hanging out with Bob and Sadj again (but longer this time), and with Deb Saltz and Matt Mace (who took second in our AG with a 7:33:14), and watching the awards. The day was so perfect, two guys broke the course record running a sub-seven minute per mile average pace.
1) Ultras are not meant to be training runs. Go in rested. 50 mile runs do not make for good recovery runs after the NYC Marathon. Duh.
2) Specificity is critical to train for any race and even more so for ultra marathons. Run really long. For the JFK50, run the damn trail in damn trail shoes. Core is more important in trail running and strong tendons in your feet, ankles and calves are critical.
3) Ultras hurt. A lot. Like an Ironman, prepare for the pain. I didn’t, and I lost the mental battle.
I think I’ll do the JFK50 again. But next time, I want to train for it and race it.
Now that we have a qualifier (ie, the JFK50 finish), Rick and I are thinking about the Western States 100, but only if he promises not to surge or ditch me again. And only if Bob and Sadj promise to be my crew.