When I registered for the JFK50 at the beginning of the summer, I knew that there was a chance of burning out. I have been training non-stop since I started running almost 3 years ago, but I got caught up in the moment and signed up anyway. There were spots left in what is typically a sold out race, and it was the oldest foot race in America, so why not? I had only trained for 9 weeks with my last 50-miler (NorthFace Endurance Challenge DC) and wanted to see what I could really do if I hunkered down and trained hard. Well, if you’ve been following my blog, you know that the exact opposite happened. I got sick, and busy, yada, yada…needless to say, the training really didn’t happen.
I’ve been telling people that I was about 500 miles under where I was supposed to be, but sitting here right now doing the calculations, I was only 397 miles short of my goal. Hey, I run, I write, I don’t do math. Still, 397 miles is a lot if you ask me.
Here’s what I was supposed to do:
This is what I actually did. Weeks in red meant that I didn’t meet my goal. Look at all those zero mile days. Lots of them. Now, I did cross-train at the gym and incorporated yoga on 60% of the days that I didn’t run, and I think that saved me. In fact, I believe without cross training, there was no way I could have finished this race. As you can imagine, I went into this race with zero confidence. I had seriously considered deferring several times, but my ongoing, relentless support from people I don’t even know, pushed me through, even through my resentment stage.
I ended up riding down and staying with Maria Shields. She’s the current record holder for the Umstead 100-miler for her age group (60-64) and has ran countless numbers of ultramarathons. It was great to be with someone with so much experience and positive energy who was constantly reassuring me that I could do this. I needed this.
We checked in to the Ramada and headed over to the expo for packet pick up. I really loved the design of the shirt and couldn’t wait to see the medal. I picked up a JFK50 magnet (which I never do until after I finish a race) and a knit hat.
We met some of her friends for dinner at Olive Garden and I had my usual pasta and beer (because beer is necessary to finish every race…apparently, it’s good luck) and then came back to prepare for the morning.
I put together my flat runner and discovered that I had brought my old, dead trail shoes. I had hoped to run in my new Hokas, but didn’t break them in enough to feel comfortable, so I opted for my old faithful Brooks Adrenaline ASR, but I wasn’t counting on wearing the original pair I bought at the beginning of the year. Oh well, I had brought the road version too and figured I’d change into them at the towpath if needed.
I then wrote three words on my hand. Grit. Determination. Spirit. These words were in a message that was sent to me earlier in the day to remind me of how I got to this point. I wanted a reminder in the morning in case I woke up in a panic about the race. It worked.
Maria and I got up at 4:15 a.m. and had breakfast in the room. We packed up our crap and checked out. It was about 20 degrees and I was freezing out and I was second guessing my running gear. We were late heading over to Boonsboro High School and missed part of the talk. But friends of mine that arrived earlier filled me in on everything that I needed to know.
Maria went ahead to meet her friends for pictures and I hung out with mine at the start. The start was pretty uneventful if you ask me. I’m not sure if it was because I was all the way in the back…like waaaaay back, but all of the sudden, it was time to run. I tried to keep up with my friend Tom, but he was way faster than I wanted to be, so we parted ways pretty early on.
The climb in the beginning was pretty intense. I had hiked the latter section of the road during training, but I wasn’t expecting this climb to be as intense too. I kept a steady, deliberate walking pace and switched from heel striking to forefoot striking. Both of my Achilles were burning and this is the only way that I could figure out to give them a break from time to time. I was amazed at how many people passed me in this section making it seem effortless. I mean, I was working hard and they looked like they were strolling in the park. I guess they trained, ’cause I sure didn’t.
When we finally got to the Appalachian Trail (AT), I started to get in to my groove. I had done this before and reminded myself that it was no big deal. I took cues for other runners as they hiked up some of the sections, but passed when I thought the pace was either too slow or thought we had hiked for too long. I knew I would be chasing cut off times, so I wanted to make it through the AT as quick as possible.
I made it to Gathland Gap (mile 9.3) 20 minutes ahead of schedule. While my upper body was warmed up, my legs and ass were still completely frozen. I wished I had my Lululemon Hot cheeks skirt over my tights or even tights with a fleece lining. I grabbed soup and cookies and took a handful of ENERGYbits and went on my way.
I made it the Weverton aid station (mile 15.5) with 40 minutes to spare. I was thrilled to have so much cushion, but little did I know that cushion wasn’t going to mean a thing come mile 30. I grabbed soup again and a sandwich then went on my way, well, until I was stopped by a train. Thank goodness it was the tail end of the train and I didn’t have to wait long.
The funny thing about the AT is that when I was there to train (we trained on the AT twice), I had a very difficult time getting through the “rock garden” near Weverton and the switchbacks. I don’t know if the leaves covering the rocks made it easier or if the two training runs really did help me get familiar with the terrain, but it was definitely easier on race day. Maybe it was all of the cross-training that I did to improve my balance, agility, and strength in my legs, but whatever it was, it was definitely more manageable. I remember thinking to myself that I felt like I was doing some crazy dance that consisted of a morph between the Quickstep and Tango where I kept stepping on the AT’s toes and rolling my ankles, but no matter how clumsy I was, it was still beautiful.
When I got to the towpath, I caught up with a woman who I ran with for a short while on the AT. She was having issues with her shoes and seemed to be struggling. I decided to run with her for a while and keep her company. When she needed to walk, I walked with her. Little did I know, this too was going to bite me in the ass later. We chatted for a while off and on and I kept her going as best as I could. The stopping to walk was really starting to take a toll on me and I noticed that time was running out. I started to pull away and decided that I needed to just run my race.
I hit mile 27 only 15 minutes before cutoff. What the hell happened to my 40 minute cushion? Did I really waste so much time walking and running with the other runner? My crew quickly helped me changed my shoes and sent me on my way.
I got to mile 30 with 5 minutes to spare. My ass had thawed, but I was really feeling the burn in my butt. My glutes and quads were sore and I could feel the pain start to settle in. This was the pain of not having consistent training. Yes, did more cross-training than running, but if I had did both, this pain would’ve come later in the game.
But where the hell was my cushion? I had a 40 minute cushion and now it’s down to a 5 minute cushion?? I had been pacing to an overall average of a 15 minute mile, when I needed to pace to an overall 14 minute mile. Then I started to do math (again…you know I don’t do math). I heard someone say ‘we have 45 minutes to run 4 miles to the next cutoff.’ My heart sank. How the hell am I going to keep that pace? I pushed and ran as hard as I could. My Garmin it 35 miles…no aid station, 35.5…nothing. Crap. I’m not going make the cut off. I ran from aid station 30 to 34.4 on the verge of tears.
Yes, I had thought about backing out of the race before it started, but I’m here now and I didn’t run all this way just to get pulled because I didn’t have a clue as to the time and pace I needed to keep. I passed runner after runner and I kept going over the numbers in my head, looking at my pace, wondering why the miles were ticking away but the aid station was no where in site. When I finally saw the gate, I sprinted my butt off to make it. I could hear one of the volunteers holding a watch say “30 seconds” as I approached. I used every ounce of energy I had to get through those damned gated and I made it. But the screams and moans of the runners behind me didn’t. My heart ached for them…I was right with them…next to them…side by side, but their journey was going to end there.
I was still completely shaken and my appetite was gone. I choked down another cookie, tossed back another handful of ENERGYbits, drank my soda and quickly headed out. I had no idea where I needed to be pace-wise to make it to the next cut off and I was completely drained. I took my PlowOn gum and thought to myself, why the hell didn’t I take that earlier. You can see the panic in my face in this selfie. I wanted to send word back to my Facebook page that I did make it through, but I didn’t have reception. Oh well.
I met up with my crew at Taylor’s landing (38.4). I had banked some time from 34.4 to 38.4 and was told that the cut off times going forward were generous. Amy asked if I wanted her to pace me and I graciously accepted. I was physically tired and mentally drained. I couldn’t calculate another mile or pace if I wanted to (not that I was doing a great job of it anyway) and frankly, I could use the company. I wasn’t planning on a pacer, but I am thankful I had the option.
Amy was fantastic. She kept me on a 1 minute walk with a 5 minute run so that I could regain the energy that I had lost when I had to haul ass to beat the cutoff. I didn’t have to think about anything. I just had to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Exhaustion is a funny thing. It really messes with your senses. I remember turning to her and saying “mmmm…I smell coffee” only to have her tell me that it was the dead skunk on the road. Seriously…I really did smell coffee.
The closer I got to the finish, the better I was feeling. I felt a little emotional as I hit mile 49. I couldn’t believe that I was going to do this. I had set out on a mission to complete one ultramarathon this year, and here I was, about to finish my third ultra in 8 months. So very blessed.
After the finish, Maria drove me back to my sister’s house where we had met. I decided to spend the night there to save an additional 45 minute commute back home. I drew a hot Epsom salt bath and got in. Guess who forgot to glide her lady parts??? BINGO! I had lubed up my toes and bra line, but I didn’t think to do my lady parts…never really had to before. But you get your sweet ass that I won’t forget to do that again.
I went to bed with the satisfaction that once again, I was able to push myself mentally and physically to do something I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t believe in myself as other had believed in me. I had very minimal training and probably shouldn’t have finished the race. I never take for granted that I am lucky to do what I do and with each great accomplishment, I am even more humbled. If only everyone can experience this amazing feeling.
11/27 Edit: How could I forgot to put my finishing time? 11:23:50
Newbie Back-of-the-Pack JFK50 Tips
The JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon was a great race. The course is challenging and while the towpath on the C&O canal is flat, don’t think that it makes it easier. If you are one of “slow ones” or “back of the packer” like me, you will be chasing cutoff times. The cutoff times are very tight and if you don’t pay attention or if you get held up by the train, you might just get pulled off. Below is a pace chart created by Tai Fung, of www.EverybodyTaiFungTonight.com. He’s great and you should follow him on Twitter. The chart below is the minimum pace you have to run between cut offs in order to make it for 7 a.m. starters.
Start to 9.3 miles: 16:07 minutes per mile pace.
9.3 to 15.5 miles: 19:21 minutes per mile pace.
15.5 to 27.1 miles: 11:38 minutes per mile pace.
27.1 to 34.4 miles: 10:16 minutes per mile pace. <—–This is where I almost lost it.
34.4 to 38.4 miles: 15:00 minutes per mile pace.
38.4 to 41.8 miles: 17:38 minutes per mile pace.
41.8 to 46.0 miles: 14:17 minutes per mile pace.
46.0 to 50.2 miles: 14:17 minutes per mile pace.
- Watch your cut off times. Do not rely on your sports watch for your pace and mileage. Mine was off which caused my calculations to be off.
- Walk up the the hill in the beginning and save your energy. This doesn’t mean stroll, it means walk deliberately.
- Step on it. When you come across a log or a rock you have to climb over, don’t step over it. Instead, step on it with one foot and allow the momentum of that foot help swing your other foot over. This tip was given to me when I was purchasing my car magnet and I followed it. I helped me save some energy and it helped keep me from unnecessary tripping.
- Do not linger at aid stations. Grab and go. You lose time quickly and when you get to the mile 27 – 34 cut off points, there is no time to spare.
- If you have a crew, make sure you have your cell phone with you to call ahead if you need something ready at an aid station, or to call and find out why they were not at a meeting point. WRITE their contact number down. You may not remember it during the race.
- If you plan on changing shoes, be prepared for the possibility of that not happening. A lady that I ran with was supposed to change her shoes at Weverton. She was able to run the AT, but needed to change her shoes because they had gotten too tight. Her crew was not there and she ran in pain going forward. I do not believe she made the cut offs.
- If you don’t have gaiters, get them. I saw a few runners stop to pluck rocks from their shoes. I like http://www.GaiterGirl.com (it’s not just for girls)
- Eat all the things. Eat something at every aid station and make sure to toss back a gel or chew every 45 minutes.
- Don’t be afraid to go into a walk/run on the towpath. The flat course can do a number on your knees and switching your stride can help with that.
- Lube all the parts. Including your lady and man parts. ‘Nuff said.
- Train on the AT if at all possible. If not, find something similar and dance with those rocks!
- Beat the train. You can lose over 10 minutes of your time if you get stuck behind the train. Don’t get stuck behind the train.
- Bring cash to the expo.
- Cross-train. Get those glutes in shape to take on the climbs, your ankles strong to handle the terrain, and your agility sharp so you can maneuver on the rocks.
So very proud of you! Your determination and grit is what carried you through!! What an amazing accomplishment and a role model!
Thank you Cindy!
Wow–congrats! That is definitely a huge accomplishment. I hope to one day finish an ultra. The human body is capable of incredible feats. Nice recap! I really enjoyed reading it. Congrats again!!
The human body IS amazing! Thanks so much for reading. I hope you get your ultra too. First step…signing up! 😉
I love your tips and am SO DARN PROUD OF YOU! You are amazing!!! Can’t wait to see your next adventure!
MUAH! Thanks so much Amber!
Congratulations!!!!!!! That’s so awesome! Glad you made all the cutoffs. That’s so strange how the pace needed to make it between 27 and 31 is so much faster than the others. Still sounds like a great experience. Enjoy your rest and recovery.
Thanks so much Laurel! Yeah…it was like a cruel joke. I wasn’t laughing at the time. LOL!
Great report! I hate to say it, but I’m happy to see someone else besides me was freaking out over cut off times during the race…. But congratulations on completing it, and many thanks for the pace chart love!
By the way — I also hit the mile 27 aid station with 15 minutes to spare, and made the mile 34 station with 2 minutes to spare — so we were right near each other during the stretch of doom! The main difference was that I beat the train (barely, as I’ll explain in my own report), but also once I hit 41.8, I knew I had it beat, and I took it much, much easier. I actually got the chance to run with, and talk with Kimball (Kim) Byron, who has finished this thing 46-47(!) times. I had stressed so hard form 27-41 that I was spent, and I think I just wanted to savor actually doing something that seemed out of reach!
Thanks so much! Yeah…getting through that 30 – 34 was pretty intense. So glad we made it through! Pretty cool you got to chat it up with Kim! Legend!
First of all, congrats!! I had a friend that didn’t meet the cutoff and can only imagine how hard that would be. Second, i was looking at the training and it’s not nearly as bad as I would have expected. Longest run only 26 miles for 50 miler? It that right? You have me intrigued. Not sure next year, but maybe I’ll go for it sometime in the future! Congrats!
That is completely right. Even in my training plan, I didnt go above that. Everyone is different, but low mileage works better for me…physically and mentally.
I have been looking for a race report that mimicked the type of race I am predicting for myself for the JFK 50 2015: back of the pack and fighting cutoffs. Your report was amazingly detailed and so, so helpful. I have been running for about three years as well, and with the JFK 50 coming up on Saturday it is the race that I am least prepared for because, I too, became burnt out over the summer. I was tired of missing fun with friends because I had to run. So in September my training schedule fell apart. I am going into my first 50 miler (first ultra in general) with one long run of 28 miles, one 26 mile run, and three 20 mile runs- and I am terrified of not finishing. I have never not finished a race. I have under my belt 13 half marathons and 3 marathons, I knew I could finish all of them. This one I am honestly not sure I can, and I am kicking myself for letting my training slide. Your perserverance through your JFK race has given me hope that I can do the same. I plan on writing those same three words on my hand: grit, determination, spirit. Thank you for sharing, love your blog and will continue to follow your races!
All the best,
Thank you Sara. You will finish this race. Keep your head in the game and your eye on the cut offs. If you do that (and eat, eat, eat), you’ll be just fine. Take your time…runners like us, we don’t come in first place, so we can take our time. Enjoy every step, believe in yourself, and visualize the glory of crossing that finish line. Sending you good running juju for Saturday! ❤
Thank you for writing this! I found the blog through TaiFung. I will use it as reference for my first JFK50 this November. I’m in Texas so we have plenty of rocks. Thank you for the wisdom to practice stepping on them, not hopping over! And, thank you for the splits data. Congrats on your finish, despite the training!
Woot! Thank you for the reference love! Best of luck, I’m thinking of running JFK again this year myself!
You bet @TaiFung! Hope you get to give it another go! I appreciated your blog tremendously 🙂
Awesome tips, many thanks! So professional and down to earth. Will make good use of them, maybe still this year. Good luck with running!