After an extremely full race calendar in 2013, I was pretty burnt out on running. Three marathons plus a half marathon in 27 days can do that to a person, no kidding! I was over stressing about the logistics of getting to dozens of packet pickups and then to dozens of starting lines, so I pared my race schedule back a lot to focus on quality performances rather than further straining the screws on my medal rack. This year I crushed my estimated time in the Four Courts Four Miler, ran the Runners Marathon of Reston in March for an age group win, came in first in my age group across both genders at the Big Sur 21 Miler, notched a surprise 11th place in my age group at the Marine Corps Historic Half, and logged a finish at the Marine Corps Marathon. I’ll finish the year out with less than ten total races, but I’m proud of my efforts, especially my most recent run: the JFK 50 Mile Race.
After winning my age group at the Runners Marathon of Reston, on a frigid day complete with sleet, I found that I’d met the A-level qualifying standards for the JFK 50 Mile Race. I’d held third place female for about 21 miles of the RMR and was thinking that actually qualifying for Boston wasn’t out of the question — basically, I was feeling pretty cocky. Cocky enough to dash off a $210 check to the JFK race director (the race is so old school that all entries are done via paper forms) and anxiously await the appearance of my name in the confirmed entrants list.
Fast forward about seven months and reality is hitting me like a ton of bricks. The race starts in view of a cell tower on top of a mountain. We had to run to the top of that mountain, then run back down it again, traversing miles of treacherous rocks and narrow switchbacks. One runner had the misfortune to bash his head badly enough on the rocks to end his race day — he had to be carried out, leaving plenty of blood behind. This was a guy whose name people knew, presumably an experienced ultra runner. I’d never run past 26.2. *Gulp*
Keeping my mental game tight was the most important thing. The human body is indeed fragile, but it can be pushed hard, beyond arbitrary limits we set ourselves. I couldn’t allow myself to get defeated by the staggering number of miles ahead of me, the cold, or the prospect of further pain in my legs/feet/back. I was determined that I was going to finish the race — anything else would be unacceptable — so I put all of my efforts into making it so. And believe me, it took everything I had.
The temperature at the start was a bracing 18 degrees Farenheit. I dressed in two pairs of tights, arm warmers, a long sleeve T shirt, a short sleeve T shirt, and a half-zip pullover. Before the marathon point, I got hot, and had to sit down to take my shoes off and shed one pair of tights. My animal brain said, “Wouldn’t it be better to just sit here? No need to get back up and run any more.” But I got up and kept going. I had to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” all of the way through (and then some) to get myself to the next spectator aid station (a HUGE thank you goes out to my friend Kim who came to the start to get my gear bag, distracted me when I was nervous, took great pictures, supported me at each aid station, and made a hilarious sign for me), but I made it. Around the 30 mile point I hit upon the idea of alternating running and walking each quarter mile. My dad works with a guy who recently swam the English Channel (much tougher than a 50 mile ultra!) and he imparted this tip: break it down into sections, and focus on the next section. There were a lot of quarter mile sections in the remaining 20 or so miles, but I didn’t focus on that. I focused on each individual quarter mile as it came. I’m always up for running a quarter mile! A quarter mile isn’t bad, isn’t that long at all! As much as I wanted to follow the advice, “if it hurts to walk, and it also hurts to run, run,” I knew that the prospect of running another 20 miles was too much to grapple with mentally. A quarter mile was a perfectly digestible chunk: so doable that I found myself grinning, chatting with other runners, and offering words of motivation since I was so comfortable in my knowledge that I’d finish the race. That’s when it really became fun. I kept up the alternating cycle until my Garmin died between miles 48 and 49 and I decided to just walk so as to save a little something for the finish line approach.
I’d thought for sure that I’d cry in despair during the race, or cry with joy at the finish. Neither happened. I smiled throughout the race (not faked for the photos below!) and danced at the finish.
First spectator aid station, near the half marathon point.
I don’t know where on the course those were shot, either the ~marathon point or 38 mile aid stations. With few exceptions, the tow path miles all looked the same: boring.
At the mile 46 aid station I refused to stop or slow down for a photo.
I expect this post will spawn a couple others if only due to this one amazing fact: I finished the JFK 50 Mile Race with no blisters and no chafing. You read that right. Perfect outfit, perfect sock + shoe combination, perfect application of anti-chafe cream. Apparently perfect nutrition/preemptive use of Immodium, too, as I had no GI issues either. I showed up at the race with a full gear bag and took nothing from it on the course — I just gave Kim clothes I no longer wanted to wear. I eschewed my stiff, frozen Clif Shot Bloks and Salted Caramel Gu (the only good flavor, as far as I’m concerned) for eight cream-filled cookies and and a PB&J sandwich. I learned some lessons about the Hoka One One Clifton in the Marine Corps Marathon which I carried over into JFK that helped me tremendously in terms of avoiding discomfort, so I think I can write an informed review. So be on the lookout for more posts, but don’t try to hold me accountable, I might go dark for another six months!