Ultramarathons are hard.
This was only my second ultra, but my impression after the 2011 JFK 50 mile run was that an ultra is harder than an Ironman. The 2012 JFK 50 reaffirmed that impression.
I improved on my 2011 time and it seemed easier, but the race was very hard. The first 15 miles, which include a long climb up to the Appalachian Trail from Boonsboro and then 13 rocky and rolling miles, beat me up pretty bad. Those first 15 miles make the last 35 very very hard.
I took a different approach to training for the 2012 race. In 2011, I didn’t train specifically for the JFK 50 due to the ITU Worlds in Beijing in September, Kona in October and the NYC Marathon in early November. I had no time. In 2012, since I didn’t qualify for Kona, I had most of September and all of October to focus on running. I built my mileage steadily up to three consecutive 100-mile weeks.
In October alone, I ran about 350 miles. The miles included long runs ranging from 3-5 hours on trails. In mid October, I ran 25 miles on the portion of the AT we’d run on race day. My weekly runs included “double days” where I’d run ten miles in the morning and ten at night as part of my commute to and from work. Almost all of the mileage was slow at Zone 3. In late October, I added a few tempo runs and a little speed.
In addition to ramping up my mileage, the major change I’ve made since the 2011 race was dietary. In August, after reading Scott Jurek’s book “Eat and Run”, I went vegan. Jurek talked about how a diet based on plant protein enhanced his recovery and improved his speed, even as he aged. The “speed despite aging” thing got my attention.
Now I’m a believer in Jurek’s plant-based protein theory. In the past, I’ve maxed out at 60-70 miles/week in training. By early October, I felt different. My mileage was building, but I was recovering better and faster. I was running more and feeling the impact less. I had an injured foot that continued to improve, even as my mileage grew. I ate as much as I wanted, but I wasn’t as hungry. Maybe the plant-based diet is more nutritious, I don’t know. I lost another few pounds without noticing, pushing me close to my college wrestling weight. (Ironically, it was making weight for wrestling in high school and college that introduced me to running years ago.)
I believe that the reason I was able to handle 100-mile weeks was a direct result of the plant-based diet, which enhanced my daily recovery. What I didn’t know was whether it would translate to greater speed on race day. However, in late October, as I started my taper, I added a few tempo runs and some light speedwork. Among the few faster runs that I had pre-JFK was a tempo run at altitude in Utah. This ten miler, the fastest I’ve had in years, suggested that there is room to grow. It was one of those runs you cherish where it feels so good to push the limits of your legs, lungs and stomach.
It gave me the confidence that, although I didn’t have the time to do it before the JFK, there’s still room to go faster and longer, and perhaps both at the same time, with the right training. I haven’t cracked the “ultra code” yet and I didn’t make my time goal at the 2012 JFK 50, but I did shave 35 minutes off my 2011 time. I believe the Jurek diet, resulting in enhanced recovery leading to high mileage, is one reason why.
I took a full 3 week taper, but it may not have been enough. Tim Noakes recommends four weeks for an ultra, but he also recommends base and build periods that were longer than the 7-8 weeks I had between the US 5150 Championships at the Hy Vee Triathlon and the 2012 JFK 50.
During the taper, I did what I normally do: cut the volume, increase the intensity, increase the sleep, and pile on the protein. The differences this time? The protein was plant-based and the “reduced mileage” was in the 40-50 mile vice 20 mile range. I think there is room for more fine tuning in the ultra taper.
While I haven’t figured out how to run an ultra fast and hard yet, I do believe a couple of things are critical (and similar to an Ironman): (1) prepare mentally for the inevitable pain; and (2) keep drinking and eating, even when you don’t feel like it. To do the first, you need a series of punishing, long runs during training. To do the second, you need to find food and fluids that you can tolerate. If you can’t tolerate it on the long runs, you won’t consume it and it won’t be there to keep you going. This is easy to understand, but often hard to do.
For this race, I experimented in training with what Jurek ate during races: hummus tortilla wraps and adzuki bars. They seemed to go down well and stay down. Race day, however, would be 2-3 hours longer than my longest training run. I was venturing into the unknown.
I prepared my nutrition and hydration in advance for race day, providing my crew (Bob and Sadj Bartolo, the best crew in the ultra world) with a cooler containing both. For hydration, I prepared water bottles containing NUUN or Endurox marked with a 15, 27 or 38 for the mile marker I’d get them. I would run the first 15 miles on the AT with a one-bottle belt, refueling at the Compton Gap water stop. At mile 15 (Weverton Cliffs), I’d switch to a hand bottle of NUUN. At mile 27, I’d switch to the double bottle belt with a bottle of NUUN and a bottle Endurox. Miles 27-38 were the roughest for me in 2011, so I wanted the important fluids plus a belt containing extra stomach meds. At mile 38, I could keep the double belt or switch to either the single bottle belt or the hand bottle, depending on how I felt. Each belt or hand bottle was preloaded with gels, salt and tums, and should disaster strike, immodium and GasX tabs.
The nutrition was also in the cooler: three 3-inch hummus tortillas and 3 adzuki bars. I made the hummus based on Jurek’s recipe, except I left out the cayenne pepper and kalmata olives. (He must have one tough stomach). For the adzuki bars, I followed the recipe: in a blender, combining adzuki beans, rice flour, barley flour, coconut milk, almond milk, a banana, cocoa powder, agave syrup, vanilla, salt and raisins. Then you bake it with vegan chocolate chips or cacao nibs and it turns out resembling a brownie. Both the tortillas and adzuki bars proved digestible and filled with energy in training runs. I was hopeful on race day, and my hopes were pretty much realized.
On the Friday before the Saturday race, I escaped DC ahead of the worst traffic, arriving in Hagerstown about 4 p.m. I met Bob and Sadj, Deb Saltz and Matt Mace, and Phil and Beth Rupp at the expo. Bob and Sadj crewed for me in 2011, and, this will surprise no one, they are simply the best. They know what I need and have it ready when I need it. More importantly, they know what emotional support I need, and they give it freely. A crew is so important in an ultra. And not just because they carry your stuff.
MMTC was well represented at the 2012 JFK 50, which was, coincidentally, the 50th annual JFK 50. It is billed as the oldest and largest ultra in the United States. The MMTC crew met at Ledo’s for a pre-race dinner and we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Hagerstown, mustering at 5:30 a.m. for the 20 minute drive to Boonsboro for the start.
Race day offered near perfect weather: 29 degrees and calm at the start. It would warm to the high 40s or low 50s, but a slight headwind seemed to cool and torment us during the day. Most importantly, conditions were dry. This is important for the AT portion. The 13 mile section on the trail is filled with rocks and roots, which are often hidden by leaves. Even when the leaves are dry it is treacherous. When they are wet, extreme danger lurks behind every step, particularly on a one-mile section filled with what I call “dinosaur teeth” as you approach the steep switchbacks that descend Weverton Cliffs.
My race plan was simple. Get to the AT section ahead of the masses; run the 13 mile section comfortably without a serious slip or fall; maintain a steady pace on the 26 mile pancake flat leg along the river (hopefully under 9 minutes per mile); and, to the extent possible, push the last 8 miles along the country roads as hard as possible. Things didn’t quite go as planned, but then they almost never do.
However, the first 15 miles did go pretty much like clockwork. I started near the front and passed enough people in the climb up to the AT that the trail portion of the race was pretty sane. I was able to run comfortably without congestion. But this section is hard. You have to make a discrete decision for almost every footfall. It is exhausting mentally, and it works over every muscle and tendon in your feet and legs. A strong core is key.
If you fall, look out. You are likely to land on more rocks and roots, which cause more damage than a mere fall. There was an article in today’s Washington Post about a reporter who ran the race, fell and broke his hand. Matt Mace told me he saw a guy go down and break a finger. I saw a guy with blood caked on his face from a fall. Last year, I fell three times. This year, I was lucky: two stumbles, two ankle twists but no sprains and no falls.
I made the steep switchbacks at the Weverton Cliffs on schedule, 20 minutes ahead of my 2011 time, and more importantly without incident. My legs were tired but intact. As I dropped down onto the timing mats and down and under a bridge, there were Bob and Sadj waiting. I switched from my one –bottle belt to a handheld, grabbed my sunglasses, hat and nutrition, and I was out onto the long, flat 26-mile stretch from mile marker 58 to mile marker 84.
The JFK course is beautiful. You sightsee at your peril on the AT (do it during training runs instead), but along the river you can gawk safely at the fall colors, the river and the cliffs. I must have been enjoying the sights too much, because my pace began to sag. Matt Mace caught up with me at mile 20, and we agreed to run together for awhile. “Awhile” became a 30 mile partnership. Matt is very experienced: this was his 10th JFK, he’s run 7:18 here, won the age group before and he came in second in the age group last year. I decided it was time to do whatever he did. He seemed to know everyone too.
Ultradudes are a chatty group and there’s a lot of introductions made or catching up done on the trail. Pace-wise, Matt pulled me much of the way on the flats. I tried to return the favor at the end when my legs came back to life in the final few miles.
Matt and I would be greeted by Deb, Bob and Sadj at miles 27, 38 and 46, where handlers were allowed to handle. Our crews had everything ready for us. But it was the emotional support they offered that I really needed. We walked a few minutes at every water stop to ensure good hydration and then our slow jogs would turn into running again. It’s safe to say that we pushed mile by mile, thinking mainly, if not only, about the mile ahead, rather than the 5, 10, 15 or 20 miles remaining. We did do a few calculations to determine when we’d be turning off the towpath and how much time that gave us to get to the finish at Williamsport.
More than anything else, I think ultras demand patience and require effective issue management. Like an Ironman, you have to stay in the moment and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It is too much to deal with looking too far down the road. It seems undoable. Small chunks at a time, you can manage.
Unlike 2011, I didn’t bottom out mentally or physically in the low to mid 30s, and I didn’t have to deal with the intense nausea that struck about mile 35. I took a few tums preemptively, but probably didn’t have to. The Jurek nutrition plan worked fine and, except for two cups of coke, I stuck with my NUUN and Endurox. I took 7 bottles of fluid over the course of the day, finishing only slightly dehydrated. The nutrition was probably a little light, but adequate: two gels, a few GU energy chomps, two tortillas, two adzuki bars, and 3-4 salt tabs.
My energy levels seemed OK, but maybe I’ll try to eat more next time. My legs felt fresh for the first 10 miles, but faded badly after the AT. They felt lifeless along the river, which is why my pace sagged. But, much like 2011, they came back in the mid-40s and we finished strong. In the last two miles, Matt and I passed about ten people, including five guys who turned out to be in our age group. We crossed the line together at 7:55:44, actually sharing third place out of 172 age group finishers. (For some reason the race organizers gave it to me, but we had identical times). Two guys in the age group would finish within seven seconds behind us, and three others would finish in the next couple of minutes. This is almost a photofinish situation in an ultra. High drama.
Ultras are hard. The JFK is tough I think because the AT pounds you relentlessly at the beginning. It was easier for me this year, I think because of the dietary changes and my increased mileage. I don’t feel like I’ve cracked the code yet, but I plan to keep trying. It took me at least three races to get a handle on marathons and the Ironman, and consistent success is still evasive.
I like ultras not only because they’re challenging and rewarding, but because of the people. The races are low key and the runners are very down to earth. After the race, some guy and I were sharing complaints about the pain while waiting for a vegan Mo’s burrito. About 30 minutes later I watched this guy climb up on the podium to take his second-place trophy. He’d broken the course record with a 5:37, three minutes behind the winner. He was a 2:14 marathoner. Who knew? He treated me better than an equal, and I was over two hours behind him.
You don’t have to be insane to run ultramarathons, but it helps. My wife thinks I’m certifiable: I’m in the lottery for the Western States 100 mile endurance run, and I’ll be signing up for the JFK 2013. And I’m not sure ultramarathons are cheaper than therapy. They hurt more for sure, but they are also more rewarding.
A final thanks to Bob and Sadj: you are the best!
And thanks to Matt Mace for the real time race support and encouragement. It was a privilege to cross the white line with you.