“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” — E.H.
Running is probably one of the more isolating things that you can do with your time. Most days, you’ll be on your own. You’ll quietly slip out into the morning air at the crack of dawn with no one around to tell you it was a bad idea. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a few familiar voices in your head to keep you company. The bad news is that these voices have names like “doubt,” “fear” and “fatigue.”
Trail running is a slightly different animal. While it’s true that the voices are still there to keep you company, the culture tries to cultivate community. The community tries to rally around the idea of “connection to our collective experience,” including how we connect not just to the mountains, rivers, and wilderness, but also the people that make every experience rich, moving and unique.
When researching ultra-marathons for the 2014 season, I wanted to find a race that would scream community. The JFK race is steeped in history and community – it was originally conceived by JFK himself as a rallying cry for the USA; a call to a higher standard. Not only did the military return the call, but the public did as well with many such races springing up around the country. Today, there still is a large military presence in the race (Marines won the team event) – and while civilians seem to expect that our elite military units are cut from a different cloth (and IMO that may, in fact, be true), these races remind us that EVERYONE has the ability to exceed his or her own expectations…if we only dare to try.
As part of my mental preparation for the race, last week I had the privilege of hearing Admiral McRaven speak at the office. While I can’t say that I agree with all of his politics, I do think that his pointers for dealing with adversity should be part of the Ultra-Marathon Training Guide.
So now that we have the race selected, how on earth do you prepare to run 50 miles? This seems to be the most common question I’ve received so far and there are many approaches. After much research, I customized my own training plan as follows:
Step 1: Prepare for a marathon (time it to peak 4 weeks before the race – Marine Corp Marathon fits nicely and it has a similar race profile)
Step 2: Add significantly more volume (+miles, peaking at 178 in September – “time on feet” also works)
Step 3: Add significantly more strength + stabilization + core exercises (gym time + pack running – body weight over metal)
Step 4: Add back-to-back runs (Sat and Sun runs, both at least 1-2 hours to simulate time on feet, peaking at 20+12 miles on Sat+Sun, respectively)
Step 5: Pay special attention to recovery (rest + nutrition)
This approach seemed to work fairly well for me. I exceeded my volume goals by hitting 1400 miles by November and got to the start injury-free. I also included an excessive taper program just to be sure I got to the start rested; for me, that involves very little running the week before the race. While it’s not without a little Taper Madness, I’ve found I always run better when I’m rested and itching to get to the start.
Race execution at any distance is all about knowing the course and solving problems. Any distance. The JFK50 is split up into a few key sections: the Appalachian Trail (AT) 0-15.5, the canals (15.5-42), and the roads (42-50.2). Embedded in each section are a number of mini-milestones, official cut-off points that let you know if you’re on track to make it to the roads in time. The cut-offs are non-negotiable and you get pulled off the race if you don’t make them. They are AGGRESSIVE because running on a canal in the dark is dangerous – period. There was a lot of discussion on the JFK50 forums by some people that DNF’d this race because they felt the cut-offs were too aggressive. Personally, I feel that these adventures are not supposed to be easy – that’s part of the joy, so get over it.
Now, onto the problems.
P1: The AT. The AT is super fun but it’s also the most congested part of the course. It’s also the section with the most uphill so you risk burning too hard, too soon – which will destroy you for the rest of the day. It’s very easy to get stuck in a conga line, which has the benefit of forcing you to slow down in the early miles, but the downside is: IT SLOWS YOU DOWN.
Getting off the AT has an additional complication: the train. Yes, there is a train that eventually comes and if it does, you have to wait for it to pass. Precious time wasted. This is no joke and it means you need to be at mile 16 (0.5 mile down the road from the AT exit) by 4 hours.
P2: The Canals. Basically, after running for 2-3 hours (3:30 for me) you then have to run an uphill trail marathon fast enough to hit the 42 mile cut-off.
P3: The Roads. Asphalt feels like a relief when compared to roots, rocks, etc. However, darkness is now a problem and so is the cold. While you may have started cold, and later on warmed up in the sunlight – now with the sun setting, the cost of keeping warm is also taking its toll on the body. Maybe if you’re fast this isn’t an issue but hey – I’m slow – and so are a lot of people.
P4: Nutrition. Your body only has a certain amount of glycogen it can store. Beyond that, you’ll need to find a replacement. The nice thing is that there are many stations along the way to fuel up. The downside is that there are no guarantees what will be there – if you hang your strategy on food that isn’t there when you arrive that’s it – game over. It’s VERY VERY hard to recover from calorie deficit once you get too far behind.
P5: Hydration: Just like fuel, you lose tons of water and electrolytes in this type of endurance event. You need to drink enough to stay hydrated, but you can’t drink so much that you become hyponatremic. It’s a delicate balance.
P6: Pacing. How the heck do you pace this thing? Maybe some people can run the entire length of the course but I cannot. My A goal was to finish under 10 hours (not met), which would require an average pace of 12:00 min per mile. Sounds slow, but when you factor in elevation changes, crowding and pit-stops, time adds up fast. Especially when most people are slowing down significantly in the last third of the race.
While these solutions won’t work for everyone, they certainly worked for me – this time, for THIS race. I’m curious to see which solutions work in future races.
S1: The trails. I’ve done a number of trail races so I’m fairly comfortable on this type of terrain. I love to bomb on the downhills and feel like I can cover the rocks in short order. The AT is certainly not the most technical trail out there, however, the uphills are no joke – they burn you out. So like many long races, the key is to take what the trail gives you – run the flats and downs, walk the uphills and pass when you can to get in front of the conga line. In the end, I still wasted probably 30 minutes behind people in un-passable situations. There’s simply nothing that can be done about this except to move faster next time. Just like normal, eyes down and active scanning ahead to avoid branches, rocks and various obstacles. The key is getting out of here without an injury – one gentlemen fell off some steep switchbacks at the end and had blood running down his nose, cheeks and eyes (oh yes, he still finished – he was a 68 year old Vietnam Marine veteran finishing the race for the 26th time).
S2: The canals. There’s no secret to this section, you just have to get going. I was very fortunate to have my wife pace me for over 23 miles along the canals (pictured above). She kept me moving and helped me come up with a run/walk system once I hit a few very very low points. Think the key is to mentally find a rhythm and hang on. I’m not sure if I did better or worse with a pacer but having this support sure felt amazing during this section – and with her being such a seasoned runner in her own right, I had complete confidence in her suggestions. That’s really what you need, someone to do the heavy mental lifting when your mind starts to go.
S3: The roads. At mile 38, I changed into my fleece, which saved me as the sun went down. Not only did it set me up to try and focus on mile 42 – the final cutoff required to finish – but again, it proves that you really can’t do as well without a team to support you. The wife and parents were just legendary in this regard – sprinting around and staying out in the cold as a spectator is no joke. Not enough can be said here to demonstrate my gratitude.
S4: Nutrition. There’s strategy and then there’s flexibility. These races require both. My plan was to take in 200 calories per hour in gels (if it sounds disgusting, you’re right – it is). In order to stay on track, I set my Ironman watch on a 30 min repeating alarm (1st time I tried this). Not only did this make sure I kept the calories constant, it also gave me a kick in the butt when I was stalled. The plan was to use this for base fueling (mix of Vanilla PowerGels, VFuel MCT-based gels) and then supplement with SaltStick tabs (2 per hour) plus aid station food (to taste).
Generally, I’ve done well with potato chips, coca-cola and potatoes/salt at aid stations. I did wind up trying a few new things (bad move) and found that although I was able to tolerate them, I did best with potatoes/salt (thinking of making my own for next time). The key here was (a) keeping on a tight schedule and (b) practicing with everything to make sure your gut doesn’t freak out. I’ve been blessed with an iron stomach and think the only problem was that maybe I still didn’t eat enough on the canal section.
S5: Hydration. Speaking of flexibility, I brought with me one vest bottle and one bladder. It turns out that at 17F degrees the outside tube of your hydration bladder will freeze rendering it useless. I’ve heard of this happening before but it never happened to me. Thank goodness I brought the UD flask with me – it saved me from a real problem. That said, I’m sure I didn’t take in enough water as a result. Pee color looked good though so probably OK. At the worst, I was running with an extra few pounds of water weight (that I shed later – again, thanks to support crew) and at best I was hydrated enough from the frequent aid stations – on a different course, I just don’t know what would have happened here. Likely, a DNF.
S6: Pacing. Here’s where understanding the course matters. In every race, it’s important to have a few ranked goals. Over this sort of distance, the obvious goal is to make the cut-offs and finish the race. This is essential. To go beyond that, you have to be realistic. Veterans advise that you can typically run 2.5 times your marathon time for a 50 miler.
So, if I’m pacing a marathon at 4:00 – that puts me in 10:00 territory – which is exactly what I ran, minus some challenging terrain. In order to do this, I would need to hit the canal somewhere between 2:45-3:15 hours, execute a 4:30-5:30 marathon, leaving me with 8 miles to close out in 1.5 hours (not impossible). This is effectively what happened except for a few differences:
- Uphills on the AT. There were a lot of them and there’s no way to run everything. It’s just not feasible.
- Conga Lines. There were plenty of choke points on the AT, especially on the switchbacks. This easily cost me 20-30 minutes.
- Uphills on the roads. Rolling country roads is a bit of an exaggeration. They were pretty darn steep; like walk with your hands on your knees steep.
Aside from these challenges, you can run most of the flats/downhills and hike the uphills. I probably walked more than I expected, but less than I feared. In general, I was more concerned with finishing once I knew 10 hour goal wasn’t realistic given the above reasons – so I definitely took a conservative pacing approach later in the race.
Claire also paced me for almost half of the race on the canal (she had only planned to run 12 miles). This was awesome for a number of reasons. In addition to being able to share the adventure, she was also helpful to keep me pushing forward. Running with a pacer made the event feel so “real” to me; it magnified the undertaking significantly. I’m forever in her debt for getting me through it.
Assessing The Damage
It was a miracle that my family was there to support me. While I managed to find some legs in the last 5 miles and finish strong, there was no question that without someone to pick me up and take me back to the hotel, things could have gotten hairy. One nice feature of the JFK race is that if you don’t have people around, there are showers you can use at the high school after the race – so while I went back to the hotel to shiver, sweat, and freak out uncontrollably – if you do not have such a luxury, you can always do that in your car after a nice hot shower.
Any race with elevation changes like this one always smashes your quads – no exception here. One big difference was that I was a bit chafed on the inside of my legs and finally got a number of large blisters due to swelling in my feet (and use of road shoes for the duration over trail/hybrids). This wasn’t a surprise, as more than one blister popped during mile 32 or so (ask Claire what the expression on my face was – I’m not entirely sure). Still, it’s always a nice surprise when you take off your shoes to assess the damage and it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.
It’s Tuesday morning and the feet are mostly healed. Some back toenails, but I have it on good authority that all toenails go to heaven.
If you’re looking for a first 50 mile race on the east coast, you really couldn’t pick a better one. The community, support and available course information make it a fulfilling adventure. I would say that there are other races that I’d rather do now that I’ve tackled the distance, but given the opportunity I would do it again. Mainly, I’d like to take on a course with significantly more trails/elevation – this was the most fun I had the entire day and I can’t wait to try out these legs on some sweet, groomed, west coast sunshine in 2015.
Other Highlights & Notes
It really was an adventure and probably it’s still too soon to process everything. Here were some additional thoughts from the day:
- A police officer was directing runners at the 49 mile mark; his car was blasting “Ode To Joy.”
- I did NOT get my red velvet cake at aid station 38. Stopping was a bad idea; at least the wife got to enjoy it. She earned it!
- Mile 44 won the best aid station award: boiled potatoes with salt. This was my favorite fuel of the day; hands down.
- Surprise visit from Claire/my parents during my 2nd wind at mile 46 – she was shocked at how fast I was moving (me too).
- iPods are NOT allowed in this race for safety purposes. This is great because it forces you to meet/work with others through the low points. A new friend Joe and I attacked the short telephone poles together at mile 47 – when I saw him at the end he found me and gave me a huge hug – band of brothers…
- Mentally, you really go to some dark places. My mental state was strong and was really able to accept the voices and push them aside.
- The Appalachian mountains are beautiful. I can’t believe I never explored these growing up, given it was only an hour from my house.
- Still have not completely conquered the chafing monster. More trial/error research is required. DZNUTS worked well both pre/post race.
- Sprint finish uphill – well, maybe “sprint” is being used too loosely, but it felt faster than 10:00, which after 49 miles is quite something.
- GPS clocked 51 miles. Well known to be inaccurate although I haven’t quite calculated where it went wrong exactly.
- Stubbed my toe on the canal and I got a cramp in my chest; very strange place to get a cramp.
- Right biceps extremely sore. This is likely due to the water bottle on my right side. Think it makes sense to either have 2 bottles or switch side next time.
- 100 mile races are beyond my ability to comprehend at this point. Claire was sure to remind me after crossing the finish line (in an attempt to discourage any thoughts of running a 100 miler next) that all that pain I was feeling – that was just HALFWAY. One thing I know for sure is that there is probably an exponential effect to the amount of training required (I’d wager > 3x what I did to prepare for this race).
- The wife kept calling me “el jefe” on the canals – this will no doubt be a short lived moniker…
- Garmin details (JFK): http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/638753213
- Reference Documents: Unspoken Rules of Being a Badass: http://runitfast.com/2014/09/16/the-unspoken-rules-of-being-a-badass/