Dec 23, 2008

JFK 50 Race Report Part 2 - The Appalachian Trail

This race report has four parts:
Part 1 - intro | Part 2 - AT | Part 3 - towpath | Part 4 - finish

War Correspondents Memorial Arch - site of the Gathland gap Aid Station

The first three miles of the course heads south out of Boonsboro, Maryland, and for three miles we were cruising along the asphalt streets of central Maryland. I didn't even know this part of the course existed, but as it turns out, it's necessary to thin out the field a bit early for reasons I'll go into later. If I remember correctly, the race starts up a modest hill. Having a "walk every hill, no matter how small" strategy, my first few steps were walking. Being in the back, I got to talking to a woman attempting her fourth JFK. "I'll probably get pulled from this one too, I'm too slow." She doesn't make the cutoffs and gets taken out of the race by the officials. I saw what she meant at the first downhill stretch, when I quickly left her behind without even trying. The next hill is a long one, pretty much lasting the rest of the the 3 miles before getting on the Appalachian trail. At this stage I walked with a man from Middletown, NY, not even an hour from Suffern where I live, who told me some very interesting things about the race scene back home. It made the first three miles go by very quickly. I'll see him at the mid-hudson fatass 50k on the first weekend of January.

Off the asphalt, onto the trail
"It is narrow rocky treacherous and hilly"
As we pulled off the asphalt and onto the trail, my mind was occupied with warnings from multiple people about how this part of the race would be - rocky, narrow, dangerous. I was confused - this trail isn't that bad? There were lots of people, but sidewalk-width track is easy to pass people on. Had tons of energy, still walking uphills, but people grouped together on downhills. It was like this for a mile until we came to the first aid station, where I dined on Frozen M&Ms, a Frozen Clif bar, and almost-frozen Water.

From here we went onto another asphalt stretch, this time a park road through Gathland State Park. At this point we ascended something called Lambs Knoll, which involved about 750' of elevation gain in under 2 asphalt miles. twilight made itself barely noticeable to the east as our line of flashlights and headlamps power walked up this steep, endless hill in the cold predawn silence. It was at this point that I realized the tube that brought water from my backpack to my mouth was irreversibly frozen, and would cause me problems down the road. My body heat wouldn't melt it.

The real AT
"If you can see the light coming out of the other ear, you're an Ultra runner." -Unknown
After climbing lambs knoll, it was down hill for a while. We took a very interesting turn around a radio tower, we were thrust onto the AT - finally, this is the part of the trail section that I heard about. It could be defined as narrow, rocky, technical singletrack - and, as friends warned, friggin crowded! What surprised me was how slow everyone was taking this section. While I am no expert at technical trail running by any means, it was immediately apparent that all that treacherous training I did at Harriman State Park here in New York really paid off. The trail was very similar to just about everything at Harriman - if anything, less technical. Clearly, I was more comfortable on this terrain than most of the people I was running with, and I felt like I was being held back.

The decision I had to make was this: do I stay in this single-file column of slower-than-me runners, or do I take chances and pass people? Doing so would involve me going off the side of the narrow trail and was actually kind of dangerous with little reward - maybe I'd gain 5 minutes, which is nothing in a race this length. Still, I'm not one to think rationally at such times, so I did what you'd expect me to do, and started passing people. All that rocky training in Harriman really paid off, because I passed tons of people in those two miles. Must have been 50, maybe even 100. And not one of them came easy, each one was a risk - follow the person for a few feet, and as soon as there was a clearing on the side of the trail, I'd call "left" (or right) and zoom on by. If nothing else, it was fun.

This was clearly my highest point in the race (literally and figuratively!) The sun was coming up, and the skies were just beautiful. I put away my flashlight and cruised on that trail, continuing to pass people pretty much for the sum of the AT. Halfway through, we came to the Gathland Gap Aid station. There was a really interesting arch there, which I later found out was the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1896. The aid station had frozen coke, frozen M&Ms, frozen water, frozen gatorade, and frozen clif Bars.

I was starting to feel thirsty, because I was carrying a pack full of water that I could not get to due to the freeze. I tried to drink a cup of water, and had no trouble removing the disc of ice that formed on top - but I just wasn't able to drink it fast enough without getting a brain freeze. I asked if they had anything warm, but they didn't. I think I may have had two cups before continuing on my way.

The real AT part 2
This part wasn't quite as technical, it was just a hiking trail with rolling hills that was steep at times. The up and down of this section seemed endless, and when coupled with the dehydration, was really starting to wear me down. It occurred to me that I probably was wasting energy carrying the water I can't get to, so I dumped my pack. The deterioration continued, and started feeling like I need water. now. When do we get off this trail??

The crowds were gone by now, so there was no passing, and it actually allowed for occasional idle conversation, which passed the time. Of course, what I really wanted to do was just zone out, but I couldn't because the trail still was too technical. It was difficult to deal with mentally and a drain on me - this is where that aspect of endurance is helpful - and I did ok, except when I did zone out, I'd lose concentration, almost faceplant or twist ankle on a rock. This happened several times.

Finally, with a sudden right turn, we were clearly descending the ridge and heading down to the towpath. I was very grateful at this point because I saw the towpath as my opportunity to zone out and just go. At this point I stopped to tighten my laces because my feet were moving too much inside the shoe on the downhill strides. It was the only shoes/feet issue I had the whole race.

Near the bottom of the hill, the first place 7am starter passed me. he was amazingly fast. a few minutes later, just before I came off the trail, the second place 7am starter passed me.. equally impressive.

Turns out that the area where you enter the town of Weverton was a handler station - and there were hundreds of people waiting for their runners there. What wasn't there was an aid station, and I was rather disappointed because I didn't know where it was. I went by the masses of people, who were eerily quiet and tried to look as good as I could given how crappy I felt. I need water? Someone confirmed that the aide was another half mile. Ok. finally got there and saw their layout of frozen M&Ms & PBJ. Again I asked if they had anything warm, nope. Someone mentioned that he thought mile 38 has soup. We were at mile 15.5. That's something to look forward to. Having learned my lesson, I spent a few minutes there and drank as much as I could. I needed it.

I looked across the railroad tracks next to the aid station. Oh look, there's the towpath I heard so much about.

Please check back soon to read part 3 - the 26.3 miles of flat - which will be posted in the next day or two.

Dec 22, 2008

JFK 50 Race Report Part 1 - Summary & Prelude

This race report has four parts:
Part 1 - intro | Part 2 - AT | Part 3 - towpath | Part 4 - finish

The eventful drive to Maryland

Introduction & Summary
If you don't have time to read the whole report, you can stop at the end of this section

Hi! Thanks for reading my report of the JFK 50-miler, which I finished in 13:42. It was my third attempt at 50 miles and my first finish. As I write this, one week later, the elation hasn't worn off - I am really very happy that I've finally broken the 50-mile barrier. [note - I wrote this several weeks before posting it on the blog.] As far as the race itself, it was hard. The freezing cold led to me being dehydrated and it hit me hard at mile 15, which I was able to get under control but also never really recover from. There was a bit of a death march for a while there, with pain around mile 45 that I described at the time as "indescribable." But I got it done and the lessons learned are really going to contribute to my future in ultrarunning.

Leading up to the race
"In ultrarunning, there are no mistakes, only lessons."- Keith Pippin

I was signed up for JFK in the summer, before Grand Teton and before Vermont. My attitude at the time was to get three 50s under my belt and move on to bigger and better things in 2009. Sky's the limit, right? Reality check: I didn't know what I was getting into. As a result, 30 miles into the first 50, I came off Fred's Mountain a pathetic mess, convinced that I was going to drop right there. I won't rehash the story, but the next 4 hours of my life, and the reflection I've had in the months since then, have had a profound impact on me - that there's a level of tenacity that I was not prepared for, and, when faced with its reality, not willing to believe existed. Even a week later, in my GTR race report, I wrote that I had hit the absolute limits of my ability.

4 weeks later I went into the Vermont 50, completely resigned to (and ok with) the fact that I would not finish it, either. It wasn't that I didn't think I was capable of it, I actually knew I probably was - hell, I probably could have finished Grand Teton. The problem with Vermont was that I was slow - and I knew that I wouldn't make the 12-hour cutoff. However, with JFK, I had a 5am start - 14 hours to finish the race. I wasn't 100% sure that I could do it, but I definitely wasn't out there to get pulled again.

The eventful drive to Maryland

One disadvantage to being a part of the 5am start, which gave me an extra 2 hours to finish the race, was that there was no race morning check-in; I had to be in town the evening before to pick up my bib and packet - at a mini-expo that closed at 7pm. My wife couldn't get off work early, so I was alone for the weekend. I left work at noon and started driving under beautiful sunshine through jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. No traffic, I was prepared to arrive in Hagerstown in broad daylight and have a very relaxing evening. relaxation wasn't in the cards, however - a pre-thanksgiving snowstorm (!!!) in Harrisburg delayed me a couple of hours. if that wasn't enough, a closed highway, caused my an accident, delayed me another hour. finally arriving there at 6pm, I was able to check in, buy a shirt, and get out. 6 hours of driving to get a 10-minute task done before 7..

For dinner that night, I wanted something simple, cheap, comfortable, fast, and unavailable in suffern. So Waffle house it was, where I had a waffle, hashbrowns, and a patty melt on texas toast. not the ideal pre-race meal, but exactly what I was craving. I checked into a super8, and kept my running streak alive by a dark evening mile on the roads around the hotel and truck stop. It was cold. Set the alarm for 3:45am and tried to go to sleep at 8pm. that was the plan. What actually happened was I laid awake in bed for 3 hours, until finally dozing off around 10:30.

Before the race
"I had as many doubts as anyone else. Standing on the starting line, we're all cowards." - Alberto Salazar
3:45 came early - I woke up easily, got dressed, checked out, and was on my way to the race start by 4:10. When I left the hotel, the car thermometer said 23 degrees. When I arrived at the starting area, I was immediately concerned by two things: 1.) There was packet pickup! I could have checked in this morning after all! (which would have meant my wife could have come and 2.) No food! None!

I walked into a gymnasium where the race director was giving some last-minute instructions. He dismissed us and people started making their way to the starting line. One thing that surprised me was how many people were around for 5am. hundreds. I went to car, and resigned to being cold for the next half-hour, took off my sweatshirt. Started wlaking to start line, and made it about 200 meters before I realized I forgot my flashlight in the car. Damn!! Jogged back to the car, grabbed it, and started jogging to the start. It was a good distance and took at least 10 minutes to get to the starting line from the high school. I was just in time, as they fired the gun as I was arriving in the outskirts the pack.

please watch this blog for part two of this report - the AT - which will be posted in the next day or two.