Category: Ultra

2014 North Face Endurance Challenge : Bear Mountain 50 Miler

Twelve days after a torturous Boston Marathon, I found myself waking up at 2:15 AM to depart for Bear Mountain for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler. That’s sort of a mouthful of a name, so I’m just going to refer to the race as the Bear Mountain 50 (or BM50). With a 1-hour commute and a 5 AM start time, half the battle is waking up on time and getting to the start.

This year 4 others were silly enough to sign up with me for the BM50: Daniel G, Dominic D, Kurt S, and Luc B. This was Daniel’s 4th consecutive running of the event, despite having sworn last year never to do it again. But like any good ultra runner, the pain of the race fade away and quickly he’s on the hunt for a new challenge.

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of my legs for this race. It was long enough after Boston that my legs weren’t sore but I still wasn’t sure how much I’d have in the tank for the last 15 miles of this race. I always feel “fine” but this isn’t the sort of race you can just wing. Additionally my mother had fallen ill two months prior to this race, and was still in the hospital unable to walk or support herself. With constant phone calls between my father and me, I had more on my mind than running around in the woods.

Starting in the dark at 5 AM, I took the first few miles super easy. There was plenty of race ahead of me and I just wanted to get the heart moving and the legs warmed up. As it turned out, my legs weren’t as fresh as I thought. I could tell early within the first 10 miles that it was going to be a very long day. They didn’t have any strength in them, but at least they weren’t sore. They were just tired. The initial goal was to start conservative (mission accomplished) and then to start picking up the pace around mile 21 and maintain a steady push to the end.

I soon found out that my easy starting pace would become my “picking it up” pace the rest of the day. I don’t know if I just didn’t have the fire in me to keep pushing or if my legs had a deep fatigue from a long training cycle that I couldn’t shake, but I wasn’t going to try and force anything that would result in a DNF. I accepted the reality and forged on.

The course this year was visited by a few inches of rain during the week leading up to the race. Mud of course was everywhere. Streams became rivers and uneven paths became long trenches of puddles and mud. Rocks became great opportunities to slip, and anyone who knows Bear Mountain knows it’s nothing but rocks: big rocks, little rocks, sharp rocks, rocks for climbing up, rocks for climbing down. In the first few miles people did their best to avoid the muddy trails and water puddles. They kept to the high side of the trail and tip-toed around as much as they could. But it was inevitable — feet would become wet. Within a couple hours most people had stopped dancing around the water and just plowed straight through. This was a trail race after all.

Things got tougher around mile 13, when a mysterious left hip pain appeared along with an old ankle injury on my right foot. Fan-fucking-tastic. It got pretty bad; bad enough that I’d inadvertently wince and hold my breath, which of course is not the most productive thing to do when trying to run. A fellow runner even asked if I was alright as he passed me by. Mind you I was still running and at the time I was surprised and dumbfounded (insulted, even) as to why he asked if I was OK, but later I realized I probably looked like a lame horse — bum right ankle, painful left hip, visinbly wincing and perhaps even audibly gasping.

With more than 35 miles left to go, thoughts of dropping from the race were going through my head. I told myself I could just drop at the aid station at mile 19 before the really difficult sections of the course started. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it to the finish. Every step hurt both sides of my body. And that’s when I started thinking about my mother.

When I had spoken to my father a few days before the race, it had been approaching 60 days that my mom was still in the intensive care unit of St. Joseph’s Hostpital recovering from a major surgery to remove a very aggressive cancer. She wasn’t able to stand up, sit up, or walk on her own. Her biggest accomplishment every day was having nurses assist her out of the bed to sit in a chair nearby for a half hour or more. While my mom could have chosen to just lie in bed and receive pain killers, she opted against that and tried to do as much as she could. Walking thirty feet down the hall may have taken over an hour, but that was only more reason to do it. If she could summon the mental and physical strength to will her body that had been torn apart, then I could finish this race. I could never look at myself again if I dropped from this race just because it was hard or just because I hurt. I chose to be in this race. I wasn’t going to dishonor my mother by choosing to fail. I wiped those thoughts of stopping from my mind.

The remainder of the race can be summarized in a single word: pain. My right ankle made it difficult to descend quickly, and my left hip made it difficult to climb. All time goals went out the window and I just went into survival mode. Initially I was gunning for a finish time of around 9 hrs 30 min, but now I was just trying to get to the finish in one piece. Whether it would be 10 or 12 or even 14 hours, I was going to finish this.

I reached the aid station at mile 24 and already I was seeing lots of people struggling. By mile 28 some runners began picking up their pacers, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Pacers became handlers and motivators as exhausted runners wanted to stop.

The stretch of road from 28 leading up to 33 were fairly runnable. At least a mile or two were on road, albeit straight uphill. I began catching a lot of people here; people who had started off too fast (all too common even in 50 milers) and were reduced to a walk with 20 miles left to go. I continued my run — really, more a shuffle — and gained momentum as I passed each runner.

Around mile 38 I heard my name called from behind. It was my friend Kurt! He had caught up to me and was making good time in his first 50 miler. We exchanged pleasantries and continued to the mile 40 aid station together. He had “lost his brakes” and couldn’t control himself from flying downhill, which is how he ended up passing a lot of people. He had a “no running” policy on all uphills, so as we exited the mile 40 aid station up a very gentle incline he refused to follow me running. The section began on paved road and for once continued on a relatively runnable trail. Despite the incline I wasn’t going to walk this and so mentally I said “good bye” to Kurt figuring that he’d catch me later on the downhills.

I glanced at my watch and did some mental calculations. I had to maintain a fairly decent 12-minute pace for the last 10 miles to come in under 11 hours for the race. While this was much slower than my original goal, it became something to motivate me. With Timp Pass around mile 46, I knew that there would be some real slow paths ahead. I’d have to fight for every second.

Power hiking my way as fast as I could up Timp Pass, I managed to get to the mile 47 aid station at 3:34. I had 26 minutes to go three miles. This would be just under a 9:00 pace, but I knew that the final stretch was fast and I was going to do anything to get under 10 hours. So I ran. I didn’t even stop at the aid station; I yelled my number out and started flying down the smooth, flat trail. Oh, what a feeling it was to finally run on something other than rocks! I didn’t care about how much my body was protesting, yelling at me in pain. My pace quickened and I flew past other runners. The course was now shared with those doing the 50K distance and the marathon, so I was catching the back of those packs. I was a man out of control.

My watch’s GPS connection had been lost around mile 21, so although I knew my overall time I had lost track of distance long ago. Each aid station mile marker was clearly labeled, but in the last three miles I was cutting a sub-11 hour finish so close that I wanted to know exactly how far I had to go so that I would know if I had to pick up the pace or not. I felt like a rabid dog, running without knowing where I’m going or how far the finish line was exactly.

Then things started to look familiar again. The final half mile of the race is the same as the first half mile. I realized I would make it to my sub-11 finish!

On the final descent to the finish area, a local area hiker spotted me from 50 meters away. She was barefoot to protect her shoes from the mud, gently making her way through the muddy and wet path. Her friends were taunting her, yelling at her to pick it up and not worry about getting dirty. I saw the fear in her eyes as I approaced running at full speed. She yelled out, “please don’t splash me!” Sorry honey, I had a race to finish. Mud and water be damned, I kept pace and flew stright by her.

I crossed the line in 10:55. I had run the final 3 miles in just under 21 minutes, averaging under 7 minutes per mile after 47 miles of running.

A 10:55 finish any other race would be massively disappointing for me. But this race became about something other than time. Sometimes people ask (and I wonder) why I run, especially the long distances. I don’t always know, except that it is what I do. But today when I didn’t want to run, I was running for my mom who could not. For the two months prior to the race, I would write a letter to my mother almost every day. I’d tell her about my day, or my exciting weekend adventures, or what was coming up next. I wasn’t about to pen a letter telling her that I had dropped from this race.

My mother ended up passing away less than two weeks after this race. While it was not unexpected, I was not prepared for it. It was her strength that allowed me to finish this race, and because of that I can take pride when I look back at my experience.

If there’s one thing I learned, it is that choosing to stop — when I still have the option not to — is not something I’m about to do. Pain be damned, I was not about to feel sorry for myself and call it a day simply because things weren’t going my way. My mom had survived two episodes of cancer and 18 years on dialysis without ever giving up. Her third and final battle with cancer got the best of her, but that didn’t keep her from trying until the end. If I can ever be half the person she was, I won’t ever be throwing in the towel either.

2013 Lookout Mountain 50 Mile Trail Race

Overall Time: 8:58:24
Pace: 10:46 min/mile
Place: 21st of 201 finishers (400 registered)
AG% : N/A

Weather: 35, rainy, windy, muddy, overcast, miserable, pneumonia-inducing
Start Time: 7:30am

It’s a little odd but the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile trail race is now the first race that I’ve done three times. It’s not odd to do a race three times. But it’s odd that of all the races I’ve done and all the distances — 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, etc. — it’s this particular 50 miler that I come back to every year. It’s over a thousand miles away, it’s up and over a damn mountain, and it’s 50 miles — it’s not just something you wake up and do on a Saturday.

Why do I come back to this race? I think it’s very simple that it was my first ultramarathon. It is when I started to explore and define my niche as a runner back in 2011. Was I a road runner? A distance runner? A trail runner? … Or perhaps a bit of everything?

Understandably I came into this race with some good expectations. Last year I had a good race, and after a 2013 of PRs in distances from the 5K to the 50 mile I was definitely feeling good about giving 2013 Lookout a hard effort and breaking my course PR from last year (8:35).

Then the weather happened.

Quite simply, the biggest obstacle for me and others in this race was the weather. The race started off in semi-darkness as the sun struggled to rise from the east and cut through the heavy layer of mist that had settled on the mountain. With temperatures just a few degrees above freezing and a steady stream of rain coming from the skies (with no foreseeable end in sight), everyone had to find a little extra motivation to get into the wet and muddy start chute.

At the crack of the sun at 7:30am, the race began and did so with the familiar sprint-out-too-fast feeling that all races (even 50 milers) are known for. I counted around 50 people who had gone off ahead of me in the first mile and this felt about right. I figured that I would catch up with most of them on the long 2000′ ascent from mile 14 – 22, and then another dozen or so in the second half of the race. I always adopt a fairly conservative start during 50 milers and it’s always seemed to work well. It really helps prevents blowing up in the end and the mental boost of passing people in the latter miles of the race helps translate into a physical boost.

A wet, damp, misty morning race start atop the mountain.
A wet, damp, misty morning race start atop the mountain.

I fell into just the right train of people when we hit the single-track around the second mile. It was so well-paced that everyone kept the same speed and there was no passing until the first aid station at mile 6. From there the trails opened up a bit and we more or less all kept our positions heading to the Nature Center aid station at mile 14.8. This section is the most runnable of the course, but the rain had made the conditions slippery and muddy. Rocks became a great opportunity to lose traction, and anything with wet leaves was always a bit of a gamble. The mud wasn’t too bad here and thankfully this year there weren’t any thigh-deep water crossings, but looking at my watch just past the 1-hour mark it didn’t appear that the rain would be letting up anytime soon.

While the rain continued for quite a while, at least it was warming up a bit. Being wet is one thing, but cold and wet is quite another. Once the sun managed to come overhead a bit things warmed up and the rain was a lot easier to deal with. It was still misty, but at least it wasn’t freezing.

Making it to the aid station at 14.8, I noticed a few people already falling back  a lot (near-walk speed). Clearly a lot of people had gone out too fast, and I felt bad knowing that some of these people had blown their race in the first 14 miles.  The first 14 miles are all net downhill, and following that is a big climb (2000′) back to the top of the mountain. If so many were hurting on the easy opening miles, I knew there would be carnage at the top of the mountain and a lot of DNFs. I had little sympathy for these foolhardy runners, and didn’t skip a stride passing them.

Just as last year, I felt pretty good on the long ascent back to the top. I have a fairly good uphill technique and intuit fairly well when I’m pushing too hard and need to back off. It was on this ascent alone that I passed 14 people. One of them was a friend’s father who I had passed at almost the exact same spot in 2012. It’s funny how things repeat themselves.

The ascent itself is long but never unmanageable. I always feel comfortable on it because after every steep, intense uphill it will level off a bit and allow you to catch your breath. It’s never as daunting as it looks in elevation profiles. Before I knew it I had reached the top, and was coming back across the start / finish line to head to the southern end of the race — a 28-mile out-and-back section with some pretty fun sections to keep things interesting.

It was good to be at the top, and even better it had stop raining. We had all spent almost 4 hours in the rain and it may have been a little too unbearable for many to complete the entire race soaked from head to toe.

Beginning this second half, I quickly found myself on a trail section that runs along some power lines. This trail has clay dirt trails, which when mixed with water just becomes HELL ON EARTH. The rain had stopped but the clay was saturated, making it slippery one second and then threatened to suck your shoe off your foot. Somehow my shoes stayed attached to my feet, and I made a mental note that when I was returning in the final miles through this section I couldn’t bitch about it because it would only be 2 miles from the finish at that point.

I continued along the trail making my way to the Lula Lake aid station at mile 29.9. This is always one of my favorite parts of the course and I’m not really sure why. It’s pretty, but then so again is the rest of the course. It’s downhill, but half this race is downhill. There’s just something about it that makes it very pleasant — it’s far along in the race that I’m never really running with anyone, so it’s quiet and calm. I feel alone, and not in a bad way. Yet it’s also early enough in the race that my legs aren’t yelling at me and I still have enough energy to look around and enjoy being in the wilderness. I’m not yet yelling, “GET ME THE FUCK OFF THIS MOUNTAIN!” It may have something more to do with my mental state in the middle of a 50-mile race. The first half of warming up is done, and I get into a good zone while still quite energetic. It makes the middle miles (25 – 40) all the more enjoyable.

It’s also something about the sound of hearing the water feeding into Lula Lake / Lula Falls. With all the overnight and morning rain, the falls were extra active and I made it a point to stop dead in my tracks and soak it all in. Having been in New York City for almost 8 years now, I need to do this once in a while.

I made a mental note there that I had spent 4:45 on the course so far. Last year I had taken exactly 4:30, so I was 15 minutes slower this year through the first 30 miles. Given the conditions, I figured this to be just about right and continued on. I knew I wouldn’t be going under last year’s time of 8:35, but I wanted to make it under 9:00 and knew it was going to be a fight until the very end.

I just ripped this picture off the internet, but you can see Lula Falls in the background. This year the falls were extra active from the rains.
I just ripped this picture off the internet from a previous year’s race, but you can see Lula Falls in the background. This year the falls were extra active from the rains. That is not me in the picture.

Passing through Lula Lake I was looking forward to the Long Branch aid station at mile 34. For me that’s when the race finish starts to materialize mentally. At mile 34 there is a 4.5-mile loop that you do before then heading back to the finish along the same trails that span from mile 22 – 34.

There are a few bonuses to this setup. Firstly, miles 38.5 – 50 are the same as 22 – 34, but just in reverse. You head back to the finish on the same trails but reverse direction. This means the route is fairly familiar. It also means that if you’re near the front, you are heading “back” as lots of others are heading “out.” The runners are typically very encouraging and cheer you on, so it’s a good boost of energy. Secondly, I can always start to taste the finish line when I’m physically running toward it. At the end of the ascent back up the mountain at mile 22, you pass through the start / finish chute to do an out-and-back section on the southern part of the course. Obviously as you begin this section you pass through the start / finish line and are heading away from it. It’s not until another 15 miles that you reverse directions and start heading back. There’s something very simple about the act of running back — actually physically making yourself close to the finish line — that really excites me even if I had several hours of running ahead of it. It keeps my spirits high and my legs moving.

Thus when I reached mile 34 and did the 4.5-mile loop before heading back to the finish, I felt fantastic. The race was entering its final miles. A lot of people stop at the Long Branch aid station (miles 34, and 38.5) because it offers a much larger assortment of food and beverages. It’s very common for people to load up on potatoes, soup broth, and instant noodles here. I was so motivated to get to the finish that I just went through only taking the time to say hello to a few friends. One of them told me that I was in front of her brother, Jonathan W., which came as a surprise to me. He’s a fast guy and I had figured he was way up ahead of me. I was wrong! I couldn’t think much about it so I made my way back to the course. I had a race to finish!

I looked at my Garmin to try and see what possibility I had of finishing under 9 hours today. Unfortunately the GPS signal was inaccurate that day, partly due to the switchbacks in the first half of the race and perhaps also because of the weather. It made it impossible to get an accurate estimation of how many miles were left, and because I knew that my time would be very very close to 9 hours I just couldn’t estimate with any certainty. It was going to be close.

Heading toward the finish with 11 miles to go I saw Markus A. making his way to mile 34 while I was heading back to the finish. I placed him around 75 minutes behind me and was impressed at his time given that it was his first 50 miler.

Before I knew it I had hit mile 40 and saw two more friends, Daniel and Dominic, in the exact same spot that I saw Daniel the previous year. This made me nervous because last year he took 12:41 to finish and this year the race had a cutoff time of 13:00. With the mud at the end of the race, I wasn’t confident that they’d make the finish. I said hello to them and kept on.

A mile later I saw yet another pair of friends, Luc and Mel. I shouted to them, “Ca va!?” but was met with not-so-happy faces. Luc had a foot injury and had been forced to slow down dramatically. Given the injury and the 13-hr cutoff time I knew he wasn’t going to make it. I gave him a look of sympathy but couldn’t stand around just yet. I had to make it to the finish.

Reaching Lula Lake at mile 42.5, I sucked down some warm ramen for whatever extra calories I might need to finish up the last section of the course and continued on without breaking much of a stride. I started thinking about all the carnage on the course — Daniel and Dominic probably not making the cutoff time, Luc’s injured foot, and the absence of seeing my friends Bernie and Cindy on the course — and realized it was a pretty brutal day for a lot of people.

Lula Falls again.
Lula Falls again.

Me, I was feeling fine. I was struggling on some sections and my right ankle was giving me issues, but my legs and head felt fine. Yes the conditions made the course slower than last year — I kept thinking to myself that I had never felt so good yet struggled so much! — but I felt like as long as I kept my head on straight I wouldn’t have any blowups today.

The miles were whittling away and soon there were only 5 miles to go. Then 4, then 3, then 2… then there was the muddy clay trail leading to the finish. It’s not very long, but man does it just stuck all your energy out of you. I walked it. I couldn’t be bothered to run along that torturous stretch of soul (and shoe) sucking filth. When I spied the end of this stretch, I made a hard right to follow a metal fence and thanked heaven and earth that stretch was done with.

I started checking my watch more often to see if I could make it under 9 hours. I had done this a little bit on the course earlier, but things like that are just so hard to predict but now I knew I was within a mile or two of the finish. But was it one mile? Or two? I wasn’t sure. Argh, the uncertainty was killing me. I knew only one thing : whatever the distance, it was short and I had to try and push toward the finish as hard as I could. There weren’t a lot of people around me so motivation was sparse. But all I needed to do was keep my head down for a few minutes and listen for the finish line. Right as I looked at my watch’s overall time hit right around 8:56, I figured my chance at sub-9 had gone out the window.

Then I heard some cowbells. And a loudspeaker. And someone announcing race finishers. The finish line was somewhere just around the corner! I booked it up the incline and saw a volunteer cheering me on. “It’s muddy and slippery, but the finish line is just around the bend!” Holy shit. I looked at my watch: 8:58. Muddy and slipper be damned, I sprinted up the final bend and crossed the line in disbelief that I had pulled off a sub-9 race through shit weather. I closed my eyes and with smiled with relief. I was happy. I hadn’t blown up at the end. I beat my friend Jonathan W., even though he probably doesn’t even care one bit about beating me (or not). I was done.

2013 JFK 50 Miler

Overall Time: 7:42:09

Pace: 9:15

Place: 53rd of 863 finishers (921 starters)

AG% : N/A

Weather: 30, overcast, mild wind

Start Time: 7:00am

 

The JFK 50 Mile race is the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the US. Every November around 1000 people set off from the town of Boonsboro, Maryland on their way to Williamsport via the Potomac River, and this year I was excited to be one of them.

I had two “A” races this year: The Boston Marathon and the JFK 50 Miler. These two races are very different, but I had just as much ambition for each: I wanted a PR for each. Boston wasn’t a guaranteed PR, what with the hills in the latter half. JFK on the other hand would almost be impossible not to PR on. The other 50 milers I’ve finished have been relatively difficult with decent total elevation gain, while the JFK course is just about as easy as they come, so a simple PR wasn’t enough — I wanted to chop off a full hour from my previous 50-mile efforts. My goal for the race was to hit somewhere around a 7:15 finish. If things went incredibly well maybe I’d inch closer to 7:00, and if things were tough I might creep toward 7:30.

As far as most trail runs go, the JFK course is flat. It’s broken up into three major sections. The first 15.5 miles are on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Much of it is rocky, and you gain 1200+ feet of gain in the first 5 miles alone. If there’s a part of the course than can be considered difficult, this is it. Following the AT, there is a 26.3-mile length of towpath along the Potomac River. After the towpath, there is a 8.4-mile section of gently rolling hills on paved road toward the finish in Williamsport.

On race day morning I woke up with my friends who had traveled with me from New York, and we checked to see what the weather would have in store. At 5AM it was only 34 degrees, which wouldn’t be so bad once the sun came up and we were moving along the course. But curiously the air temperature was set to drop down to 30 degrees by the 7AM race start and I noticed a wind would be settling in as well. I was suddenly glad I had brought my arm warmers.

In addition to the arm warmers, I had brought a few basics to have along the course. I had approximately 1000 calories of Endurox drink mix to consume on the course, some candied ginger (~300 calories), and my Orange Mud Hydraquiver backpack to carry it all in. I normally figure that I don’t need calories for anything less than a marathon (26.2 miles), so I’d just need to restock enough to get me through the last 20+ miles of the course.

Carrying 1300 calories, I’d only have to consume a little bit from the aid stations along the way — somewhere around 1000 calories total spread out over the 50 miles.

We drove to the start but not in time for the 6:20AM course briefing that I was told would be unnecessary. Finding parking wasn’t an issue and we had just enough time to use the john and jog to the start about a mile away. I was surprised to see that the start was actually on a main road through the town of Boonsboro. While I knew the race started on paved road, I figured it’d be a small side street or possibly sidewalk. To be honest it was pretty cool to be running right through town for the first half mile.

Typical for just about any race, a lot of very slow people had pushed their way to the front. Before the gun went off, I thought I had placed myself near enough to the front that I wouldn’t be weaving around people. I was wrong. The incredible inconsiderateness of some people will always astound me, and it certainly irritated me that morning as I restrained myself from pushing people out of the way to try and get around them. The roads were fairly wide but with almost 1000 people stampeding along, a slow runner in front can really be annoying and possibly dangerous.

The first two miles of the race start. Despite having placed myself fairly close to the front, a lot of people who would just end up congesting the streets had also pushed their way up. #896 finished in 8:57, and 9:42 -- more than 1 and 2 hours slower than me -- yet they're ahead of me in this picture.
The first two miles of the race start. Despite having placed myself fairly close to the front, a lot of people who would just end up congesting the streets had also pushed their way up. #896 finished in 8:57, and 9:42 — more than 1 and 2 hours slower than me — yet they’re ahead of me in this picture.

It took a couple of miles to get decent position in the field while we were still on paved roads, and soon we were on the AT. I could tell a lot of runners ahead of me didn’t quite have the trail experience of typical ultramarathoners and saw a face plant within the first 4 miles along with a lot of general inability to navigate through technical rocky sections. I did a bit of passing out of necessity, but tried not to get overzealous considering that I still had 45 miles left to cover. The AT section of the course is interesting. Friends had told me about it and I had built it up in my mind that it was basically a mine field of sharp rocks sadistically hidden by leaves. I was surprised to find out that none of the rocks seemed painful to my feet and that there was also a random two-mile section from 3.5 to 5.5 that was on completely paved roads. That makes a majority of the first 10 kilometers on paved roads and this supposedly was the “hard” bit.

Miles 6 – 15.5 were finally on proper trail, and none of it seemed too difficult. If you’re a road runner who doesn’t feel comfortable on trails, then I could understand how it could be tricky — especially navigating some of the downhill portions. But for those with a bit of experience and not afraid to actually run it wasn’t half bad. In this section there wasn’t a lot of jockeying for position, although I did pass a lot of people on the downhills. I started eating some of the ginger I had brought along, but the air was so cold that I couldn’t feel my fingers and it was a substantial physical and mental exercise trying to open the Ziplock bag. I must have spent a few minutes trying to run while opening the bag, eating, closing the bag, and putting it in the shoulder pocket on my backpack. It wasn’t my most elegant moment, but my fingers just weren’t working in the cold.

Somewhere on the AT in the first 15 miles.
Somewhere on the AT in the first 15 miles.

Unfortunately I lost a bit of time when I tweaked my right ankle pretty seriously midway on the AT. I had done the same thing back in late September on a run in Prospect Park, and my ankle has never quite healed fully. It was problematic in the Tesla Hertz Run in October and has given me the ocassional issue even on the road. I was nervous that it might mean a DNF for me, and I was really focusing on trying to get off the AT without causing any major damage. At the Tesla Hertz Run, after tweaking my ankle in the same way around mile 20 I continued to do it at least a half dozen times for the next two mile. It was beyond painful and I wasn’t about to repeat that. I gingerly made my way through the rest of the AT and made it down the switchbacks in approximately 2:35. It was 15 minutes slower than I had wanted, but I lost a bit of time that I wasn’t going to risk injury trying to get back.

Sadly I can’t report that I didn’t fall in this section. With just a few hundred meters left before getting off the AT, my left foot got caught on something and I went down pretty fast. After a two second self-analysis to make sure nothing was broken I got back up, brushed myself off, and continued going down without having lost my position in the field.

Approaching the towpath and flat 26.3-mile section ahead, I decided it was time to start with the energy / hydration plan. I filled up my water bottle with some Endurox mix immediately exiting the AT… and I immediately dropped it and spilled it all on the ground. 500 calories wasted. Yikes. I tend to eat / drink minimally in races, so losing these 500 calories made me hope I wouldn’t need them later to postpone a late-race bonk.

The towpath was a welcome relief coming off the AT. Going down the AT the pace slowed a bit and I caught up with traffic (even despite my gimpy right ankle) that I was unable to pass because of the narrowness of the course.  Now on the open towpath the course was much wider and completely flat. I was able to enjoy the sight of the Potomac on this cold November morning, and with the sun properly up now I was beginning to regain feeling in my hands. By mile 20 I had started to sweat, which meant that it was time to ditch the arm warmers.

Head down conquering the towpath of monotony.
Head down conquering the towpath of monotony.

My pace along the towpath was fairly consistent 8:10s, plus or minus a few seconds here or there. Before the race I had wanted to hit 8:00 flat or just a few seconds faster, so seeing these splits on my watch was disappointing. Worse, I took a realistic look at how the effort was and whether speeding up was in the cards. It was not. I was fairly sure that if I tried to increase the pace just a little bit, I would be walking at mile 40. This was my pace on this day, and I was going to make the best of it.

Things got a little difficult shortly past the halfway mark. The sun hid behind the clouds, and I started to notice the wind a bit more. A few people had mentioned the wind earlier in the day but I didn’t give it much thought at all. But by halfway it was making me cold and slowing me down. I regretted having thrown away the arm warmers, and became a little concerned that a short-sleeve shirt in overcast and windy 32-degree weather wasn’t quite ideal.

Miles 30 – 42.5, the end of the towpath, were a struggle. I guess in a 50 mile race they always are. It was near this point that I just wanted to be done. I had only been able to pour one more mix of Endurox into my water bottle after beginning the towpath, meaning that I was in some massive caloric debt zone. I had probably burned nearly 4000 calories and consumed only 700 during the entire day. I had stopped at one of the aid stations near mile 35 to try and get in some sugar (Mountain Dew and Coke!) and also some hot soup broth. While it tasted fantastic, I was a tad too aggressive with it and I could feel it sloshing in my stomach for the next two miles. Ugh.

Worse, having stopped at that aid station to eat / drink I noticed that my knees were getting painfully stiff. I looked down and saw dried blood from the fall that occurred shortly before exiting the AT. When I got moving again, they were swollen and painful and I was jogging at 11:00 pace at best. It wasn’t for another half mile that the stiffness went away and I could run properly again, but by the point my pace had slowed to around 8:35 per mile. I made the decision that between the sloshy stomach and the painful knees, I wouldn’t be making any more stops at aid stations until the finish. I would just run through them, calories be damned!

Struggling, but not about to stop now! The final miles were overcast and cold, and I regretted getting rid of my arm warmers at mile 20.
Struggling, but not about to stop now! The final miles were overcast and cold, and I regretted getting rid of my arm warmers at mile 20.

I got off the towpath and onto the final stretch of paved road and soon there were mile markers alerting us how many miles left to go until the finish. “8 miles to finish.” The rolling hills ahead were really slowing everyone down who I had in sight. I felt tired but put in a final surge just to see what I had left. My legs protested but I quickened the pace back down to just under 8:00 pace and began catching up with a lot of people ahead who had been reduced to jogging after 42 miles. I could see them struggling up the hills, which gave me more desire to hunt them down and pass them. I made a deal with myself to pick up the pace again when I hit 6 miles left. 7:40 miles became 7:10 miles, and the last 5 kilometers was well under 7:00 pace. I wanted to stop but even worse I just wanted this to be over. I passed people like they were standing still, which was exhilarating. With one mile left to go I managed to pass two more people, one of whom I only edged out in a sprint finish that made me want to vomit when I stopped just beyond the finish line.

My final time was 7:42:09, which was a little bit slower than I had expected but not entirely off the mark. The conditions were a little cold and windy, and to be honest I may not have had my best running day. But I did still manage a decent race and a PR at the distance.

Oh sweet baby Jesus! So happy to be finished.
Oh sweet baby Jesus! So happy to be finished.

I’m writing this 5 days later, and I’m still reflecting on the race. It’s a bit amazing to me that in my 50 milers I actually consume so few calories. During all of JFK I had maybe 800 calories during the run and still had energy to pass at least a dozen people in the final 8 miles of the race.  While I would never recommend to anyone else to have so little fuel, this strategy seems to have worked for me for my past three 50 milers. While it makes me nervous to go into a race with this plan, at the same time it relaxes me knowing that I don’t really have to carry much (if any) food on me.

Looking back at the course if I do this again, the first 15 miles I will have to attack a little faster and watch out for my right ankle. The towpath is very beautiful but monotonous, and unfortunately the race doesn’t allow iPods so I’ll have to find another way to distract myself. If I can run the last 8 miles like I did this year, I’ll always be a happy camper so that’s a good goal to try and hit again. Ironically, what I think was a little difficult was the relatively easiness of the course – the last 35 miles were so flat that there was no reason to walk any bit of it. For most races you’ll get a good uphill that you have to walk up, and you use different muscles and break up the rhythm of the run a bit. It’s a good mental and physical break. But with the JFK course you have to be constantly running and running and running the entire time. It’s a relentless assault and you have to stay motivated the entire time. It’s hard!

If it weren’t for the relatively steep entry fee ($200), I’d say that I’d do this race again next year for sure. Instead, it might have to wait another year or two but I will be back to tackle this course.  It’s a great end-of-season race and could be easily integrated into fall marathon training. Best of all, there’s a great sense of camaraderie that isn’t lost despite the event’s size. The towns along the course and the support  / cheering is fantastic. The atmosphere is electric from the race start in Boonsboro to the end in Williamsport. It’s a big and historic event, and yet it has managed to remain fairly low key and enjoyable. What a great race.