Fourth place female, 7:29.
It’s strange how the absolute best race of your life can be preceded by the absolute worst prerace feelings. Where to begin…I had no plan. Not even a remote idea to a strategy. Last year I had spent endless amounts of time and effort to religiously sticking to my “beginner” 50 mile ultramarathon training plan and had every motion of my JFK racing plan memorized and ready: I was going to run through most of the first 15.9 miles, but I would walk every hill. Then on the canal, I was going to do 10 and 2 minute run/walk transitions, not running faster than a 9:30 min/mi pace the entire time. I knew this was unnaturally slow for my liking, but I had read the warnings, both in reading and by JFK veterans that the biggest mistake you can make is to go out too hard. But not because you will risk slowing down in the end and hurting your time, but because you would not finish at all. I had the same fear of any novice runner going into an extreme endurance event. The fear of the dreaded awful ugly “DNF” printed next to your name in the results section that would bring regret and shame for a long time, and could forever haunt your conscience with every triggered memory of the event.
This year I had nothing. I had a couple of other races in mind this season, including the Blues Cruise 50K and AC marathon, so my tapering/recovery periods for both of those kept me from sticking to my plan the previous year of back-to-back long run days sandwiched by rest. I had done a few 30 mile runs with the Pagoda Pacers, but the weekend after AC marathon, and 4 weeks before the race, on one of Jen’s midnight love runs through the middle of the woods on the trails of Pottstown PA in the middle of the night, I started getting significant pain in my left lateral knee from the tightness of my ITB at around 17 or so miles into a 25 mile run. By the last two miles, I was practically limping.
And I was terrified. I had experienced this kind of pain before. After my first marathon, I had so much pain on the outsides of both knees that I literally couldn’t run for about 6 weeks. I had always had plenty of tightness, especially in my left ITB, but this was the first time I had pain I could feel. After that run, I woke up the next day with a lot of tightness and pain with weight acceptance. This terrified me more. I tested myself by trying to jog across the parking lot. I stopped less than 25 meters in and limped back with severe pain. I could not even jog across the parking lot. How was I going to run 50 miles in a few weeks?!?
I took about 3 days off running completely, taking time to swim and bike in the meantime to try and keep up my aerobic fitness. I went to see Alan in the AT room and Anthony in the PT clinic, and Rich in the running lab. I tried hard aggressive massage, foam roller, and hip flexor stretches, chronically holding the stretching position for long periods of time while I was doing other stuff.
And that’s when I broke my rib. I was out on a ride with Trevor (probably because I couldn’t run) when a dog ran out to attack us, he braked, I let up on mine to grab my water and speed up, ran into his back and went down hard on my left side. Knocked the wind out of me, and when I got up my back muscles seized up in spasms. The next day I woke up and it hurt to breathe. Awesome.
The knee did get a little better, but I lost my last long run 3 weekends out, only being able to pull out a 16 miler on the treadmill before the pain was too bad. I started KT taping all the time and wearing a knee brace. The brace helped a lot with the pain when it was tight, even though I hated having it on my leg when I ran. At this point I was so close to emailing Spinnler asking to be deferred this year that I do not know how or why I never actually went through with it. Something seemed to come up every time. I might say “if it’s not better by tomorrow, then I will” and then tomorrow “if it’s not better by this weekend…” but that email never happened.
Less than a week before the race, my knee was doing much better, but I was starting to experience significant pain of a muscle strain in my calf. Turns out, I strained my tib post by using the tight brace or compensating for the ITB compression provided by the brace with my pronators. Are you kidding me??!! I went out for a 5 mile run three days before and all I could think about the entire time was the pain in my calf and when I could stop running. When I got in, I iced, taped and NSAIDed and decided that that was my last run before the race. Too late to send an email for deferment now. From here on out, I was just going to rest everything and pray for the best.
I was nervous. Nervous because of my injuries and the lack of proper preparation I felt I had had before the race caused by them. I tried to mentally prepare myself for the sure amounts of pain and misery that the day would bring for me, but mostly just worried that I was going to let down my best friends, who had traveled so far to see me and support me, and my aunt, who would be waiting at the finish line. I prayed I would make it to the finish line today. I just kept thinking to myself, at this point, I don’t even care about my time, I just don’t want to be branded with a DNF for JFK 2010. I took a short practice jog to test out the legs. Stuff felt tight but no pain. Ok, I told myself, I’m never going to get through this day if all I do is wait for the pain to kick in, so I started to try and get myself pumped and psyched up about the beautiful morning and the race day atmosphere.
It really was a perfect race day. I was barely chilled standing at the starting line in my Brooks shorts, UA longsleeve heat gear shirt and Ducky’s lucky JMU tri top, the same top I had worn in the very first race I had ever done, the Hagerstown Duathlon, in 2008. Oh yea, and the $2.80 jacket I had picked up at Goodwill that week on college student discount day. The gun sounded and we were off. My pit crew, Nicole, Ducky and Mark cheered on the sidelines from up ahead. Less than half a mile up the first hill we passed Reeders Nursing home, where my grandmother currently lived. I knew that her body was up on the top of that hill, but her mind, wherever it had gone, was there giving me the guiding encouragement that I needed. I could almost feel her in me. I had to do well.
I took it pretty easy the first three or so mile of hills getting up the App trail. No pain yet, so far so good. I did push myself a little bit, not stopping to walk at any point of this part like I did last year. I remembered that last year by the time I got to the single track trail it was so backed up, you were forced to walk flat easy parts just because it was so backed up and it was frustratingly slow. I didn’t want to deal with that this year, so I tried to get a little ahead so that I could get a good position for the trail, which I did manage to do. I found myself surrounded by people about my pace, and so things flowed pretty smoothly through.
As soon as we hopped on this trail I thought about all the training runs that I had done on this part of the trail over the past year and up the crazy steep paved hill that we were about to hit. This was a great hill workout for training. As I cut around the familiar curves and hills on this part of the trail, still with no pain, my confidence seemed to rush back into me. I was trained and ready to do this. Injury or non, I had my fitness. And this was my stomping grounds.
When we got to the steepest paved hills, I ran as much as I safely could, and walked the extremely steep parts. On a training run, I would practically be killing myself to run my way to the top without stopping to walk. And I would make it most of the time. But now it seemed like a wasted effort with so much race left to go. I did have to force myself a bit into a walk with all of the excitement around and within me, and because on any other training run I knew I would be pushing myself hard up every one of those hills.
It was on these paved hills were I met my new friends, the Navy marathon team. “Hey lady” a one right next to me called out as he ran past me with two of his friends, all in bright gold matching Navy marathon uniforms. “Don’t call her lady. Call her Ma’am.” They giggled at their own clever little comments as they passed me and ploughed up into the next steep hill. I just smiled and let them pass. What I wanted to say…see you guys later if you keep up that pace on these hills! And I would.
When we got to the top of the hill and got on the trail again, the next part of the race was just fun. I heard someone call out that it was mile 5.4, and I remember thinking, wow really, that was like nothing! I am so ready to go—bring it! And still no pain! I had done a good job of getting a good position for the trail, so things flowed really smoothly and I usually had plenty of room in front and back, making passes pretty easily when I needed. I loved being on the trail, and in my training in the past few months, I had gotten a good amount of experience in trail running under my belt, or at least as much as I ever had. And the Appalachain trail was certainly one of the more technical terrain I had done. But I liked it because you always have to be thinking…you just don’t know you’re thinking. And you’re really thinking 8-10 steps ahead at any moment. That root under your foot at the present—that already happened. Even a few feet infront of you is already history when you’re working with “slow dumb muscle” (--CK). Always be thinking ahead. Make one little misjudgement about the angle of that rock and you’re going down. That is, unless you have catlike subcortical responses that can reflexively jerk you out of a grappling stumble and send you billowing forwards on your way again like nothing happened. Kinda love when that happens sometimes. And the best part of it; when you are thinking about what you have to do to not fall on your face, your mind is occupied and cannot dwell on the other stupid things in life, which probably largely contribute to my love of those trails.
Maybe I am rambling, but enjoyment of my mind and body’s hard yet automatic work navigating through the single track consumed my thoughts and I was just loving life. I did meet a friend. He was a middle aged Asian man, running in compression tights, and that’s about all that I remember about him anymore. We ran together for a few miles. I asked him his goal time mostly just to get an idea of exactly what kind of pace I was running at this point, because I was so comfortable I really had no idea. About 8 hours. Yikes! After some small talk he proceeded to ask me about the KT tape that I had pretty much covering my entire left leg (a tib post to the medial calf tape and an ITB tape to the lateral thigh, with my annoying black Velcro brace strapped on overtop of it all) and so my attempted brief explanation took up a couple of miles (well hey, he prodded!). “So basically you have a knee powered by electricity” he said after it all.
I took my time decending the switch back rock cliffs at Weaverton around mile 15. By this time we had begun to pass some of the 5AM starters, which contributed to the congestion on this treacherous single track decent. I didn’t mind the backup. Afterall, it probably saved me from doing more damage to my knee. One of my favorite parts of this race is emerging from that downhill rock decent and into a crowd lined path with everyone screaming and cheering, making you feel like a rock star. I didn’t have anyone meeting me at this point, but I unexpectedly heard Mrs. Huffer, my neighbor who had taught me tap dance lessons since I was 5 for about 8 years of my life. It was good to be home.
By the time we came out by the Weaverton rest stop, nature finally called (as I’d been nervously waiting) and I hoped into a Porta John at the rest stop, with no line, and in a few minutes was back on my way. I had eaten a pack of cliff electrolyte block shots along the trail. I grabbed a couple of pretzels, filled up my water and hit the road again, passing over the mat at 2:36. I knew that the race was still young but I was feeling really fresh, and last year I remembered feeling like someone had just taken a hammer to my quads after emerging from those switch back cliffs. This year my team was supposed to meet me at the beginning of the canal to do the shoe change from my lucky Soloman trails to my beloved bloodstained Mizuno road sneaks. Sure enough, what felt like seconds after I hopped on the canal, I see a girl on a bike dressed in neon green and yellow with crazy curly brown hair emerging from beneath a helmet accompanied by two others, all with bright smiles cast across their faces. They saw me just as immediately as I saw them, my arms reached out in their direction, and we all started screaming. And sure enough, just like last year, they formed a parade around me as I ran, only this time, Nicole had brought the porable iPod player I had given her and we all started jamming out to Miley Cirus (theme song of our unforgettable UMD road trip). Great memeories with amazing friends.
All four of us went along for a while, and I was quite entertained listening to all the gossip I had missed out on when I graduated JMU a semester early. I kept my pace pretty conservative, just keeping myself in comfort zone the whole time. After a little while, Ducky and Mark sped up ahead to where they had parked the car a few miles up so that they could put their bikes away and then hop back on the trail to run with me. I had made the decision not to change my shoes at that point because I felt good and did not want to stop and risk my ITB tightening up if I didn’t have to. So it was just Nicole and I for about 7 miles or so. I love Nicole. You know you have a real friend when they are willing to drive 6 and a half hours to see a determined little novice runner girl run in a crazy 50 mile ultramarathon, and support her along every step of the way. Talking to her along that segment really gave me a lift. I have no close girl friends at UDel, and so no one to really talk about girly stuff with, not that I really have a lot of that to talk about, but it’s still always nice. And I had gone too long without her sensible feedback. While we were running I had a couple of gels, halves of banana and some pretzels, nibbling lightly at every aid station. I stopped at a Porta John again at around marathon point. I remember hitting mile 27 and it was just under 4 hours on my watch. I was excited for a second, before remembering I hadn’t remembered to start it till we got to the top of South mountain this morning. Well, almost a sub 4 hour marathon time!
The legs were no longer fresh. My feet were starting to ache a bit. My Solomans felt like they were growing heavier by the step. Even though I had declined to do this after getting off the trail, I wanted to change shoes. Nicole called Ducky and Mark, and sure enough, when we saw them at Antietam before mile 30 they had set up my shoe changing station for me. It was a pretty smooth change. The tough part is making sure to transfer the timing chip. But within a minute or so, I was hitting the canal again, with the feeling of my aching feet now nestled snuggly in my Mizunos that were still cool from their storage in Ducky’s car all morning. Now I was ready to get some.
And I was off. I don’t know what came over me, but almost immediately after I changed shoes, I started picking up the pace, quicker and quicker as a couple miles went on. Ducky ran about 25 meters before realizing she forgot to grab my handheld water I had been carrying, and turned around to go get it and then run fast to catch up with me and Mark, who stayed with me. But I guess I just started running too fast, because she never did catch us. Mark hung with me for a few miles. And we started picking people off. And not just the 5amers this time either. And I was blowing by people at a pretty significant speed too. After a few I could start to feel Mark dragging a little. And I wasn’t about stopping at this point. I had to guess that I had about 15 miles left to go. I was now probably at 7:30-45 min/mi, but at the moment I was confident and insistent that I hold on to the pace. I was well aware of the dangers of pushing too hard too soon, but when you are still feeling as good as I was at that moment after 35 miles, you keep moving. Logic was telling me too fast, but my heart was driving me on. Before long, Mark made one last sprint effort to catch up with me, handed off a caffeine gel to me, and then dropped back to catch up with Ducky and Nicole.
I was loving every minute of the race at this point. I was alone now, had sunk into my own rhythm feeling strong. I was still someplace in the middle of astonishment and disbelief that I was feeling this good right now. In fact, the only pain I could really perceive was a bit of burning soreness in my quads at each foot strike, informing me that some form of fatigue was setting in on my body from someplace within. I just wasn’t feeling the pain in its ugliest form yet. Feeling this little ache almost encouraged me at this point. I was so happy that fatigue and NOT injury was the first sign of discomfort that I had felt all day.
I think most of the feelings of this euphoria can be attributed to the fact that I was finally back on my own stomping grounds. It really was a beautiful day. The sun peaked through the autumn colored trees along the toe path and cast brightly off the sparkling water of the canal, the same canal where my dad and my brother and I took the canoe out to go fishing (and the same trees I had lured my thrashing flounders up intoJ). This was the same toe path that I would go biking along with my family as a kid. Joseph would always make a hard effort to break from the pack and go out to the front to lead the way, but he would die fast and soon be lagging behind the rest of the way, or at least until he caught his breath for his next attempted effort. Can’t go out too hard! These memories were so clear to me at this moment that they could have been made yesterday, and I temporarily escaped from the reality that was occurring and as my 22 year old body traveled through familiar territory, I was a kid again.
*I feel home, when I see the faces that remember my own, I feel home, when I'm chilling outside with the people I know. I feel home,and that's just what I feel. Home to me is reality,and all I need something real...* The O.A.R. song was playing through my head for several miles. I escaped from myself for a little while, letting my mind wander and my body do the work. I wasn’t really thinking about the race. I didn’t have to.
I was passing all kinds of people along this point, many mumbling words of encouragement between their efforts of gasped breaths. They made me more aware of the fatigue that was slowly settling in on me. My body felt good, but breathing had gotten somewhat more difficult to manage smoothly, and my respiration rate was notably higher. But I still felt decent so I pushed on.
I saw the end of the canal. And passed the 5th place female just before hitting that aid stop. She was not looking so good. I down some water and a gel before hitting the pavement and ploughing up a hill. The last big hill. I snapped out of it and was back to taking care of business. Just 8 more miles of straight up road. I can do this. Although my ecstasy was wearing off somewhat, I knew I felt a hundred times better at this point of the race now than I did at this point last year. And last year when I hit that hill, I never stopped running after.
I picked up the pace a bit, while still being realistic about my limits. I was cruising. Every few minutes I would pass someone new. Soon it became a game to spot runners in the distance and steadily eat away at the lead. I was picking off guys one by one. I was loving this. Then I passed the 4th place female with around 6 miles to go. She was not looking so good either. And at about mile 47 when I spotted three golden yellow jerseys plodding away in the distance, I knew exactly who it was. The Navy marathon boys from the mile 4 hill earlier this morning. As I neared I could see all three had their heads down, plodding away at these last few miles. I cruised up beside them. “Hey boys.” All I heard as I ran by was “holy shit.” Admittedly, this moment was pretty glorious. If I was tired at this point, I was certainly going to do anything within my power not to show it in front of those guys.
When I came up the last small ‘rolling hill’ (that is really more like a bump in the road) and the aid station with the stuffed Furby holding the sign that read “49,” every part of me felt uplifted. I knew I could start kicking up the pace and emptying anything and everything I had left in the tank. When there was just half a mile to go and I started making the final turns to the home stretch, waves of emotion began to well over me. What am I doing HERE at THIS hour?!! I should still be back on that canal. Fourth place? FOURTH PLACE in the biggest ultramarathon in the country?!! It was madness, yet so real. Police officers and traffic directors cheered and gave words of encouragement as I ploughed through the intersections, not even hesitating for the fraction of a second to check for vehicles. I didn’t know whether I wanted to laugh, cry, or scream at this point, but I felt like I couldn’t do any if I wanted to. I have no idea what I looked like, but I knew I had a huge smile on my face as I rounded the last corner. I saw the lights where I knew the finish line was and started gunning it. The announcer wasn’t even going to know what just hit the mat when I crossed the finish line. And he didn’t. I think he announced the wrong name and said I was 45. Oh well. Still glorious.
I think I jumped into Ducky’s arms first. Or maybe Nicole’s. Its hard to remember. I hugged my aunt and Mark. I was jumping up and down pretty much going crazy. I wished that my parents were there to see me, but I knew that they would be proud. I was overwhelmed by feelings that I didn’t even know existed, let along could be stirred up by a running race. I guess that’s what happens at the finish line of the best race of your life.
My Auntie Ann gave me so much help and support in every race, especially on this race day when my parents couldn't be there.
My new friends:-)
The crew that saved my race and the best friends of all time.
All in a day's work.