“The further one goes, the less one knows.” — Lao-Tzu
This year for my third annual JFK race, I was hoping to do something special: break 10 hours. Not only was I convinced this was doable (first year moving time was close to this) but I was also convinced that it would be easy. I knew the course. I knew the terrain. I knew myself. I was older ( just hit the ‘Masters’ division ) and also wiser. Well, it just goes to show you that the more you think you know something the less you sometimes actually do. Especially when it comes to racing 50 miles.
“Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson
Aside from knowing the race fairly well, it really just goes to show you that when it comes to ultra-marathons you really have too many variables to count on anything being well understood. There is of course the weather, the training, the nutrition… everything that can go wrong would eventually go wrong in some way – still, it’s getting through those unknowns which still makes the day remarkable. This time, it was death by a thousand cuts – god, I love the sport; wouldn’t have it any other way.
My plan this year was to try for very even pacing during the race and push a little more up front so that I would nail the AT and avoid a traffic jam. My pace band was a thing of beauty, however, my training load was a little light so hitting 10 hours was really going to be a challenge; ditches would need to be dug to pull this one out.
“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” – Sun Tzu
The race strategy was to hit the canal in 3:06 – that would put me right above 12:00 minute per mile pace, avoiding a bottleneck on the switchbacks and allowing me to hit cruise control on the canal just below 12:00 ( 11:30 ideally ) for a marathon to chip away at the average for the duration of the flat miles before the roads.
Once past the canal, it would be do or die – see what I had left to put into the roads – either that day I would find another gear or not. For JFK, the race really only starts at mile 40 or so – really after mile 44 aid station ( potato junction ).
For nutrition, the plan was to eat gels consistently (2 per hour) and not stop at the stations unless I needed fluid – water, coke, broth, whatever. For the first few stations, I didn’t even bother to stop – just wanted to minimize the time not moving forward.
“No matter where you go, there you are.” – Buckaroo Banzai
This year, the race felt a little different. Hard to pick out just what it was but the tone of the race felt a little weird. Here’s just a few odds and ends that changed the dynamic immensely:
- Single 6:30AM start. This was the most interesting change from previous years. Instead of splitting the race into two starts (5AM and 7AM) with 12 and 14 hour cutoffs, there was a single 13 hour cutoff. While I understand this was done for safety reasons ( and doesn’t impact me much given my 11.5 hour average time ) it did have a few noticeable consequences. Firstly, some of the older/slower runners were not able to participate ( sad ). Secondly, the later part of the race was daylight instead of moonlight. A nice change and I finally got to see parts of the course that before were totally dark.
- The Long Walk to the start .This year, they took everyone on the roads to the start – however, all of the old timers ( me now ) still walked across the fields to the start. Some habits die hard.
- Weather. The day was perfect, if you were an elite runner. Not a cloud in the sky and great cool weather – even a bit hot. Then at 1pm, a few things happened in rapid succession: (1) the wind picked up to 20mph – some headwind, some sidewind. This blew the leaves everywhere – wow. (2) the hail started and the temperature dipped – where did that come from! really glad I was carrying my Patagonia Houdini – “now you see it, now you don’t particularly relevant” and (3) the rain came late.
- The Field. Things have changed – the fast keep getting faster and more interesting. Jim Walmsley broke the course record in 5:21 – I mean, that’s just pure insanity. And Iron Mike came in 4th after weeks of super-high quality racing. The landscape has changed but in spite of this we have to remember that there are still only about 12K people that finish a 50 mile race in the US every year. That’s probably less than .01% of the people that finish a marathon. Think about it and don’t be so hard on yourself.
- David Goggins. Enough said. Never Quit. Keep in mind, he finished in the top of the field. This is running time, not quitting time!
- Isolation. There are more and more new runners to the scene. For some reason, these new runners aren’t really into the social dynamic – they keep to themselves. This run felt a lot more isolating. Not sure if it was the lack of moonlight on the roads, or the lack of runners in the later stages of the race but it had a more somber vibe.
- Hallucinations. A certain lack of hallucinations this year. This must mean I’m adapted to the distance. I did see a team of vultures descending on a carcass at some point – really glad some other person posted a picture to Facebook or I would not have been 100% sure this actually happened.
- EPIC Support. The ultra-running community is STRONG. Not only was there support on the race but I was treated to a friend of a friend’s DC Ironman crew supporting their teammate on the course. This meant they sorted out the driving, the AirBNB accomodations, were there with blankets post-race, food race-night, bourbon for healing and breakfast tacos the next day – WHAT!?!?!? Totally an amazing crew and definitely need to return the favor the next time our paths cross. They CRUSHED the support! Thanks, team!
“Informed decision-making comes from a long tradition of guessing and then blaming others for inadequate results.” — Scott Adams
As I indicated below, I didn’t hit my goal time. Thinking about it, I was still happy to finish – if I ever try to put out a time goal again, there are definitely a few things which I need to keep in mind:
- Respect the distance. Even though you’ve done this before, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it again.
- It’s the training, stupid. In hindsight, I was desperately under-trained. I did run two 50Ks to prepare but the lack of speed training and strength training wasn’t there when compared to previous efforts. This year, I just didn’t have the leg speed.
- Gear. The shoes were fine. Fast and light helped. However, you I do much better in fast and padded shoes later in the race. Blisters happen. Un-phased. Injinji socks are also MANDATORY. You knew this and didn’t listen. You didn’t listen. Idiot!
- Statistical Anomalies. So, I finished in 11:21 – 14 SECONDS faster than last year. For a 50 mile race, that’s sort of insanity. Finishing a 50 miler in the same minute two years in a row is just insane. I don’t get it. Not one bit. You should work for Timex.
- Eat Real Food. The nutrition plan fell apart. Again. I could not deal with gels (brought 20) and once again, real food was the way to go. I really do think I should just stick with coke and water the entire way one year. Ok, coke isn’t really food but it’s palatable. No pack. Nice and light. Let’s see what happens – I bet you could to it. Though if you’ve always run trails with a pack it’s a little bit of a jump out of the comfort zone. Next year.
- Gear. They stopped making Arcteryx Stride Tight – shame because they worked perfectly. Great to stop chafing and great for when the weather turned. I also can’t speak highly enough on the Patagonia Houdini Jacket. Works in the rain, wind, and hail ( all during the race ) – AND the kicker is it packs to next to nothing so carrying it for the first 40 miles ain’t no thing. This is the best thing I own.
Still, the best 50 mile race in the country. That’s a fact. The organization and race day logistics were a sight to behold. Can’t wait until next year to join the 200 mile club!
As was the case last year, I ran the numbers and there were a few interesting insights:
- As predicted/planned, I crushed the AT section. This is proved out in the numbers/splits. I should stick to more trails – then I have an excuse for being an old dog.
- While I pushed hard on the AT ( not too hard ), it didn’t make up for the lack of leg speed on the flat part of the race. If I look at my 2015 vs 2016 pacing, it’s clear that any gains on the AT year over year didn’t help with a lack of leg speed on the flatter sections of the course.
- Even though I am internally ashamed by my performance, I’m not really. I still came out middle of the pack at 11:21 and change. That’s quite something given the 13 hour cutoff – wonder how many people just don’t go the distance. Statistics are still pending. And the journey is the thing – I’ll keep getting older and slower, but as long as I keep on showing up I’m happy.