“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.” – Bill Bowerman
Every time I run really long, there are many new questions to answer. This year was no exception:
- What’s more important: experience or training effort?
- How do you train for 50 miles? How over/under-prepared am I?
- Would I be able to run as well, as consistently and as safe with significantly less training effort but more years of experience – both in the race itself and in long-distance races in general?
- Is grill cheese the best station food? Or is it potatoes with salt? Or salted-caramel anything? (spoiler alert: it’s red velvet cake)
- Is it really possible to run 50 miles without getting blisters?
There is something comforting about running a race you are very familiar with. The route is known and the pacing is comfortable. One also has the confidence that even though the distance is significant that you’ve finished before so chances are you will finish again. This year was my fourth JFK (and 20th run north of 40KM) and unbeknownst to me, it was yet another painful reminder that when it comes to ultra-running, history does not guarantee anything at all about the present. There are too many variables, too many exceptions and you’re not the same person either – this year was certainly exceptional and no exception.
In 2016, I performed some analysis of the prior 3 efforts which was an attempt to figure out how to pace for a better result. Adding 2018 to this dataset seemed like a silly idea given the conditions; it wasn’t the same race at all, not even on the same planet. An outlier to be sure. Weeks of heavy rain and a snowstorm the Thursday prior to race day left the AT wet, slushy and less than fast. Even the towpath had sections of dramatic mud, slide and all lack of stability and traction control. The finishing rates at the JFK are typically north of 90% – this year they were closer to 70% – and even beyond that, I was scared to look at how many DNFs/DNSs and other DN<etc> littered the books. Some races you have several goals – this day, I only had one goal: FINISH IN ONE PIECE!
To add to some race day anxiety, I was still fighting a cough and sore throat – not bad enough to cancel but I think in hindsight running in the cold with a cough was a “questionable” decision. The gap of only two weeks between JFK and the NYC marathon was a stretch – hard efforts leave your body depleted. Even though I felt fine structurally, I knew that my immune system wouldn’t care and look for opportunities to pick up little bugs in the week after my hard road effort. Still, I try to be in the mindset that if you wait until you feel 100% before trying something hard then you will never do anything – that’s kind of how I get into these situations in the first place.
Still – experience had to count for something right?
Getting To The Start IS the Goal; the Race is a Victory Lap
My training plan was to start with a basic marathon training plan, target my longest run a few weeks before the big dance and take into account life stress as a secondary training effect. This means that if work is crazy or the kid isn’t sleeping – that counts as miles
and training stress. Listening to your body AND your life would be the only way to get things done. This year the NYC marathon was two weeks before JFK so the stars seemed to line up on the schedule. Even ahead of this peak race I wasn’t so sure – while my longer runs of 3+ hours went well, I had done less than my normal amount of back-to-back days, less than optimal strength training (minus baby squats of course), had thrown my back out a few months prior, had some lingering hip pain as well – leaving me questioning my overall perception of my durability.
To give myself a fair shot I took all manner of precautions the week before the race including a wonderful post-NYC marathon, pre-JFK race massage from Crissy to exonerate the free radicals and lactate still hanging around. As Crissy explained: “we want to condition your muscles, not fix them”. I also kept to my nutrition regime pretty consistent with only a modest deviation in favor of potatoes over pasta.
I promised the wife that I wouldn’t do anything “stupid” (excluding my original decision to sign up of course) so found myself taking my time on the AT; not like I had a choice. I decided to use my less than toothy Salomon road shoes in the interest of comfort (good decision – zero blisters) however this meant I had zero ground control in the mud and snow this year. This was clearly a RUN and not a RACE. I’ve used Salomon’s in the past and have had a lot of success – one of their technologies (endofit?) ensure that my toes don’t slip to the front of the shoes which in my experience is the primary cause of blisters (other than of course, just kicking rocks or the shoes being too narrow, to begin with – a cough-cough – HOKA… ).
Running the AT section at my peak fitness level takes me around 3 hours and this year it took me closer to 4 hours. Normally, in a race this long I look to optimize the stations, avoid bathroom breaks and minimize stoppage time overall – it all adds up and can chip away significant time against the cut-offs. This year, I just didn’t care about the timing and enjoyed myself. This felt like a winning strategy until later in the race. It’s a shame the AT took so long – one of the best parts of the race is when the non-stop uphills start to level out and you can just cruise down the hills to the cliffs at Weverton.
This year I simply wasn’t in a rush and was trying to be present. I took my time at the aid stations and even stopped to use the bathroom several times to keep an eye on nutrition, hydration and salt intake (using the trusty beer-color scale for hydration). I cramped pretty badly during the NYC marathon (hot day) which forced me to confront some realities about how much salt I need at harder effort levels – no such mistake this year or cramping to speak of at JFK – ample salt tabs did the job on a semi-regular basis. I checked the historical race report and my first year (in 18 degrees) I took two salt tabs per hour – my fastest effort – so maybe there was something to this analysis. This year, I only used one per hour which felt like the right level – maybe two is better given the number of times I went to the bathroom. Also leveraged HUMA gels which in theory help you retain more fluids given they are comprised of CHIA seeds which naturally retain more water.
I used to skip the mandatory pre-race briefing because it’s a hike down to the starting line from the high school and I don’t want to be rushed – this year I found it interesting and important to listen to the briefing given the trail conditions. When the race director said, “Now who has 3 finishes shooting for 12-hour pace – follow these guys – stand up.” Immediately, I had my “oh shit” moment – that’s me!! Somehow I became a race veteran overnight. Uhhhhh….
The weather conditions were perfect for a day of running – 30s and 40s with not too much wind – one had no idea just how wet, muddy and snow-filled the trail would be later on that morning (a week later it would prove to be 32 degrees and raining all day – we hit the weather bullseye just like the NYC marathon, which had days of rain before/after the race day). I started wearing a T-Shirt and gloves and progressively added layers as the day went on. Packing extra layers is a veteran move. My first year I had crew support that saved me in this regard – changing into heavier layers somewhere around mile 28. Those who run without support risk planning for one set of conditions in the morning only to be surprised how the weather changes as the march continues. My Patagonia mid layer and Touk saved the day once more. My north face running gloves I kept mostly for nostalgia reasons (run so many races in these) but truthfully I need warmer gloves in the future; these get wet in a hurry.
My experience taught me that you always break this race up into three sections: AT, towpath and hills. With a 4 hour AT section in the books, this meant that in order to make all of the cutoffs I needed to run a 5-6 hour marathon on the towpath followed by 2-3 hours on the roads to close out the final 8 miles. It all seemed very reasonable except for the fact that I was pretty much running on empty by the time I hit mile 42 (bizarre). Putting together my trusty race band kept the anxiety down – even though I could estimate run/walk rates to get me closer to 12-14:00 MM pace, the reality was that I only needed to hit 15:00MM on the roads to finish by the cutoff.
I was pretty much hovering an hour ahead of the cutoffs for most of the race, and then slowly it started to get closer to 45 minutes … and then 30 minutes for the final stretch. Finishing in 12:30 on a day like this was fine by me – I was keenly aware that I was probably in 11:00-11:30 shape and could have pushed to be as quick as two years ago (had the conditions been optimal). It’s interesting to note that the ultra signup ranking still puts this effort in the middle of the pack (~44% ungraded time) – even though it was 30 minutes from the final cutoff.
Apparently, experience does count for something and old age hasn’t wrestled me to the ground just yet. I’m reminded by Rich Roll’s quote that those people that finish ultra-endurance events are “not the ones that run the fastest but those that slow down the least” – my quick smooth stride the last 800 meters was a great reminder that I had done something right.
Of course, I did the !@#!@#! analysis – it doesn’t really tell me anything useful given the different weather and trail conditions but at least I can include fancy graphs in the race report. Experience will get you to the finish line but that doesn’t mean you won’t be slow as molasses. In any case, enjoy this data throwdown (the slow AT section in the first quarter is pretty apparent – more interesting that I wasa little faster in the first part of the towpath, likely due to that slower effort up front):
One makes many promises during these races: I’ll never run one again; I’m sure if I dropped given my cold no one would care and still be proud of me, etc, etc. This internal dialogue is what the race is all about: never giving up is fundamentally about listening to these internal thoughts, understanding they are an attempt by your mind to trick you into stopping, and then remembering why you signed up in the first place. Aside from my private mantras to help me chug along, I came up with a new one for this year: commit, don’t quit. It’s all about a level of commitment – when you say you’re going to do something: you better damn well do it and give it everything – it’s one thing to say you’re going to do something and yet another to be tested with plenty of easy ways out.
I don’t know why but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to JFK in the future. It’s not just a simple love affair with this race or the desire to do better – I feel like under the right conditions I have a 10-hour finish in me somewhere. The course, the support, the history (both personal and not), the location (my home state of Maryland) – all of it makes me feel like every time I finish the race or even get to the START that I’m somehow a PART of that history.
There’s always too many interesting notes from these races. Some odds and ends below:
- This was my 10th ultramarathon and 20th marathon-or-greater effort. I cannot believe how I’ve kept this stretch up for so long.
- If you have the means, I recommend a concierge nutrition service for pre/post race success – Claire has fine-tuned the nutrition strategy that I don’t even have to think what I’m doing race week. It’s a little expensive but WORTH IT!!!!
- Using a BUFF is great but it also helped me this year not breathe in too much cold air into my lungs. Never leave a BUFF behind; best gear ever.
- I was planning on using HUMA gels the entire way but instead, I used them for about half of the way and took various other things from the tables; think again it may not have been enough calories especially later in the race. That said – I had ZERO stomach distress even after pounding red velvet cake, three grilled cheese sandwiches (which normally gross me out) and all the other things.
- Quote of the race: “This is a cake walk!” said one racer, referring to the muddy AT. To which I replied: “Yeah, it’s like walking on CAKE.”
- The barber shop was open and serving clients at the race start in Boonsboro – might as well plan for this next time so you look good in the race pictures.
- I always make a note how HOKAs would be better in the later miles. Think that still holds true but not if they cramp the toes or you don’t have a stable platform for the AT (like this year). Ran in these Salomon road shoes this year
- Dry max socks worked perfectly. I used to be a die-hard INJINJI fan but I’ve switched this up recently and am happy with either.
- Was playing slingshot with a South African who had run Comrades 11 times (a 55-mile road ultra) but this was his first trail race. He went down on the AT a LOT; not sure he’ll be back for trail ultras in the future but a fun companion for the day.
- Always amazed at finding another gear; this happened around mile 35 – I kept surging a little to verify I had something in the tank but in the end just kept it casual to be used later on the roads.
- Mr. and Mrs. Incredible shoed up late at mile 42 – not sure if this was due to the mud but always nice to see them for their fun and support.
- That cough really didn’t go away. By the time I hit California for some R&R post-race, I was pretty sure that I had bronchitis and was on antibiotics for 3 days. And then I caught a cold after a recovery run in the redwoods. Just can’t catch a break but I guess that’s what happens when you push to the edge.
- The balls of my feet were tender from being on my feet all day but nothing was materially wrong and ZERO blisters; still can’t believe it. One week on, though, and the mud has not yet receded from certain parts of my long, lo
st toenails – pedicure to the rescue next week.
- My cousin Matt picked me up and took me to McDonalds – I just needed fast food and have no idea why. I really do look like I was caught red-handed. I should note that I was also shaking uncontrollably after sitting in the car for 30 minutes so something was clearly not right in la-la-land.
- Pace bands – they work. Happy to share if you need them. I typically put on the cut and some other ambitious pace ranges.
- Even though I expected the AT to be muddy I did NOT expect the towpath to be a mess; it was impassable in some sections.
- GPS Simulated Drone Movie of my race with some stats: https://www.relive.cc/view/1970829966
- As hard as it is to be wet, going through cold mud and water is actually GREAT for your feet – it reduces swelling from the pounding so as long as you have the right shoes and socks don’t go around the water.
- Almost lost a contact lens. Went wonky. That’s why I always carry a few extras in my race pack – happy I didn’t have to use this in the end because I’m really not sure how I would have put them in my face.
- More exciting race reports from the front of the pack including some pictures and the female winners.
- This was again part of my fundraising plan for 2018 – between this
race and the NYC marathon I was able to raise (with my teammates) over $80K for cancer support charities in the NY area; being able to contribute and inspire makes the journey that much more rewarding.
- Social media: what would we do without it. Although the FOMO would be large in some cases, in this case it’s actually quite cool to see how everyone was suffering this year – it’s not that misery loves company but it’s nice to validate that I wasn’t the only one that had a hard day (attaching some snapshots below).