Thursday, November 24, 2011

JFK 50 Mile 2011

When I woke up at 4:50AM with the acute care song (theme song of the class that’s been haunting my semester) stuck in my head, I should have known things might not go my way today.  But I felt confident that I was trained, rested and ready.  I ate my standard race/long run breakfast (bagel, jam, PB and banana), downed a small cup of coffee and headed to the starting line.  I pulled on my JMU tri top kit with black Saucony shorts and light black Underarmor shorts along with my Salomon trails and was on my short way to that start, about one mile from my home.

Youngest cutest members of the Team Jackie:-) (post race)

We arrived to the school on plenty of time, but for some reason everyone was late getting to the starting line.  I actually didn’t even think what time it was because we were just walking out towards the front of the bulk of the crowd, but when we were about 400 meters away, I heard someone on the loudspeaker say the race start was in 90 seconds.  I looked at my watch. Yikes!  I quickly skipped up as close as I could get to the starting line, but was stuck behind a big crowd.  When the starting horn went off, I was still pulling off my sweats (and nearly kicked my dad in the face in the process!).  But after I was finally on the road, I calmed down and settled into it.  The first long gradual hill to the single track went as expected, and I was working a bit to get to the trail head, trying to ensure that I wouldn’t get caught up in the congestion there like I did a couple of years ago.  It was going to be a good day of weather outside, but right now the coldness of the morning left my hands freezing, even inside my gloves and I kept scrunching them up trying to fend off the bitter sting of the cold.  Because of my late start, I didn’t get to see any of the elites at the start but I could see single figures in the distance up the hill, already largely spaced from the pack in less than a mile.   In the first mile, Mike and Ted came up from behind me and ran with me for a few hundred meters.  I had a pretty good idea that, as much as I’d like to, I was not going to be seeing these guys again till the finish line.  It wasn’t long before they went off and the second pair of Navy guys, LT and Matt came to pass me up the hill. 

The first section of trail went smoothly and soon I was climbing up the steep, steep paved road section to get on the second section of Appalachian trail.  I played it safe and took power walks up all the really steep segments here.  The top actually came pretty quickly and before I knew it someone was calling out “5 ½ miles!”   The trail was just as rocky as when I’d last left it, except now there was a fresh layer of leaves overtop, making things extra tricky at parts.  I was passed by one woman here that I would see later on the canal.  Otherwise, it was just me and the men.  And soon, I found that it was just me.  It was kind of strange to be alone on the trail when I knew there were 1500 other people out right now on the same trail.  Almost eerie.  But I found a comfortable rhythm and stuck with it, making a decent pace.  I decided that I was feeling OK.  Not great, but OK.  My stomach also seemed to be cooperating this morning, which I was grateful for.  I broke into my Cliff block shots, which I carried in the pocket of my Northface handheld about an hour in and just kind of chewed on them gradually for the next half hour.

Coming off the switchbacks and hitting the canal at mile 15-16 my legs felt…meh.  They didn’t feel bad, but definitely not fresh, which I guess is understandable.  I took a bathroom break soon after hitting the canal and then started working on settling into my forever-on-a-flat-road pace.  Glancing at my watch and split times, I saw I was over 30 minutes behind a finishing time of 7:15, so I knew I had some making up to do.  I was alright with this, obviously, as all the hard hills and technical terrain are in the first few miles of the race.  Now it was just about picking a pace that I could sustain for the next several hours.  I know that the biggest mistake people make in the JFK race is so go out too hard at the start of the canal.  The canal is 27.2 miles, just one mile over a marathon, but your quads have just taken a pretty good pounding on the trail and switchbacks, not to mention the 9 miles of rolling hills you have left to go after you finish.  In other words, you should NOT go out at marathon pace.  I planned to go out at a pace that was a little faster than last year, with the intention to pick things up around the 32 mile mark if I was feeling it. 

The pace felt pretty comfortable, probably around 8:30s, but from the way I was feeling I guessed that this was going to get harder to hold later on down the road.  I met a couple of guys on the canal and ran with them off and on, most of them traveling from pretty far to come to this race.  Some of them picked up the pace after a few miles, and I chose not to follow.  I’d be seeing them again later down the canal. 

I was informed that I was the 12th woman coming off of the Appalachian Trail, so I thought that there were either more competitive elite women out there than we thought or else some people went out way too hard.  I saw one girl just ahead of me when I got on the canal, but she was keeping a pretty good pace for a while, so it took me a few miles to catch and pass her.  I picked off one other woman a while later who was running by herself.  I was looking forward to getting to the Antietam aid station, around mile 27, which always has the biggest crowds and I knew “Team Jackie” would be there to swap out my handheld and get more gels.  When I ran through here I think I was 10th place woman, with 9th just in front of me.  She stopped at the aid station, and I passed her when I ran through.  

Around the 30 mile mark there was an aid station where I grabbed a cup of water on my breeze through.  As I was leaving I heard someone yell “Damnit Jackie!”  I had to laugh when I saw Matt and LT behind me stopped at the aid station.  It just wouldn’t be a JFK if I didn’t chick at least a couple of Navy guys J
Around the 4 hour mark my quads started feeling annoyingly sore.  And I knew it was way too early for them to start feeling this way.  Then, almost suddenly, it felt like someone flipped the off switch to my legs, and they felt gone.  Just like that.  I looked at my watch.  4:22.  I had at least 3 more hours of running to go.  Not good.  I was a little puzzled because I thought my legs felt worse now than they had during my 5 hour training run, Halloweeny, or even the UROC 50K around 5 hours.  This should not be happening right now, and I’m not sure why it was.  It was a bit disheartening, but I thought I was just kind of sinking into a race low and I’d come back out of it soon enough.  So I didn’t slow down much, and kept the pace at a bit of a push to try and get through it. 

I thought I was eating smart.  I was drinking Gatorade from my handheld and took gels every hour to 45 minutes and also has some Jelly babies and another pack of Cliff blocks.  I wasn’t hungry, but knew it was important to keep the calories coming.  However I did not consume anything of substance, and by the five hour mark I was beginning to feel pretty nauseated, which I attributed all the sweetness of the gels and Gatorade.  I knew I should have probably eaten a granola bar, fruit or something to appease my stomach earlier on, but now I was too nauseous to even think about chewing and swallowing food, so I continued to choke down gels.  It was a vicious cycle. 

But I kept at it, nauseated and leg screaming, at times almost having to force myself not to drop pace.  I was determined though, and I always come into ultras ready to take what the day will throw and feeding off of strong will and stubbornness at times when I need to push through the hard parts.  And the miles came and passed, some being harder than others.  Like Matt would say after the race, it felt like someone was taking a rubber mallet and smacking my quads with it on every stride.  It was pretty uncomfortable, so I just tried to think about anything but running.  From a couple quick glances at my watch and split times though, I was reeling in on my finishing time, from more than 15 minutes off of 7:30 finish, then to 12 minutes, before long 7 minutes…  Normally I don’t like looking at my splits and doing mental math during races, but this is the first race where I have actually found that doing this actually helped boost me a little.  I felt like crap but I was still making progress. 
How can you not be lifted when you see a cute little girl holding this sign? Love my little cousin Margaret:-) 

Right now all I could think about was getting to Taylors landing at mile 38, the next aid station where I would see my crew again.  My legs felt so crappy that I had re-evaluated my decision of changing up my shoes and decided to do it at this point, hoping that it would give me at least a small feeling of rejuvenation I would need to get through the next 12 miles.  My crew was great and made the shoe change and chip swap pretty smoothly and quickly.  But when I set off again, I found it didn’t really do much.  It wasn’t my feet that were the problem; it was my legs.  And trying to alleviate something more distal in the chain just wasn’t going to work. 

Still I pushed on, trying not to drop pace, and at this point really considering that I’d be really lucky to scrape 7:30.  I calculated that I was about 3 minutes off this time right now and I still had some time make-up to do.  This was the point in the race when the canal really seems endless.  The best thing to do is probably to not look too far ahead of you, because you can see off so far in the distance…and you can’t see the end.   Soon after Taylors landing a boy with a bandana ran up beside me.  “Hi.  Did you run this race last year?  Because you passed me around this point last year when I died on the canal!”  I don’t know if it was more funny that he actually remembered my from last year or that he was admitting this to me right now at the same exact point.  He ran up ahead a few hundred feet to meet up with his friends where he slowed down again.  I passed them all about a minute later, giving a couple words of encouragement like I usually do.  But one of the bandana guys friends decided to try to hang with me and asked if he could run with me for a while.  Sure.  He was a bit SOB but was holding it together pretty well, at least seemingly.  He told me that this was the fastest he had fun in hours and thanked me for giving him the boost.  We small talked for a little while, and although I had no idea who this guy was, it was kind of nice to have some companionship for once during the race.  The last thing I remember him saying was “you’re probably going to leave me in the dust here soon…”  And after the next aid station, I didn’t see him again and I was back to running solo. 

The last aid station at the end of the canal came sooner than expected and seconds later I found myself on the road battling up the last big hill before the finish.  This year, this hill felt steeper and harder than both years past, and it was actually the first year that I had to walk up a part of it.  After up-chucking a small amount of gel or some other grossness up my throat and into my mouth,  I decided to let myself walk for less than a minute up the damn thing and also so I could give myself the mini pep talk that I needed to finish up this thing.  At the aid station, I had stopped briefly to refill my water and grabbed a cup of Coke and sipped it a little up the hill.  I hoped it might help with my stomach a bit.  Less than 9 miles to go. 

The last miles were a push.  Especially since I knew I was cutting it so close to last year’s time.  But I was in pain right now and didn’t even want to look at my watch anymore.  I’m going to run this thing in as hard and as best that I can and looking at my watch time is not going to make a difference in my effort, so there’s no point.  The mile countdown starting from number 8 began.  I concentrated on a few guys that I saw ahead of me and managed to catch and pass about three or four of them.  I wasn’t thinking about the finish line yet though.  Just thinking about getting to around the 46 mile mark and intersection where I would see my dad who would be waiting for me.  I didn’t really need anything.  Nothing at this point was going to make me feel any better.  It would just really lift my spirits to break up this long final stretch of road and see someone along the way. 

There were a couple of aid stations along the way, which I pretty much just blew through, just taking a cup of water or something small to drink.  I finally came to the corner where I knew I’d see my dad.  I had actually thought it was coming sooner than it actually did, so I had spent the last mile thinking that he wasn’t able to get through the traffic to get there, so it was an extra treat to actually see him now.  Less than a 5K to go. 

After turning this corner, I spotted a guy ahead in the distance, and just ahead of him a little further, a woman.  She was pretty far up at this point, and I knew it was probably out of my reach at this point to be able to catch her.  At this point, it felt like a tractor trailer had run over my legs.  Then backed up and hit them again, just to be sure the job was done.  I had nothing.  I didn’t even hesitate at the 1.5 mile-to-go aid station.  Soon I was rounding corners where the cops directed traffic, excited to see my family and crew at the finish line.  I knew I’d see my grandfather, aunts and little cousins coming out to support me, all representing the purple and gold “Team Jackie” shirts.  We looked like a real teamJ  Somehow I managed to pass that last guy in the last few hundred meters when I saw the finish line and heard the announcers.  I saw the clock said 7:29, my last year time as I approached from a distance so I kicked it in with everything I had left to try to cut it as close as possible.  Clock time was 7:30:16 when I crossed and I came in 9th place woman overall.  My stopwatch had 7:29:50 from the time I crossed the starting matt this morning. 

The medal felt like 20 pounds around my neck after that rough day.

Of course, my favorite boys:-)  Mike did really awesome, with a 6:42 this year and Ted a 7:08.  Matt and LT weren't far behind me, finishing in 7:40 and an amazing first 50 mile time for Matt!

More team Jackie!


For a while, I was kind of disappointed with my finish.  All I could think about was how great of a race I had last year and trying to figure out what went wrong this year.  But as I stood up at the awards ceremony, Mike Spinnler announcing the women ahead of me and their accomplishments, I realized that I must be good for something to be able to stand up there with the top ten.  These were some of the best ultrarunning women in the country, including some women on the U.S. national 100K team!  The first woman finished in 6:32, coming close to Devon Crosby-Helms CR and I was happy to see Cassie Scallion a relatively “new girl” from Wisconsin take in her first big win in the ultrarunning world.  Meghan Arborgast finished just two minutes behind her, and blew out the female masters record by some 85 minutes!  So, rather counter to portrayal by the pre-media coverage, the women’s field did turn out to be pretty “stacked” afterall. 

Additionally, I consider myself very lucky to have the support that I did for this race.  At every allowable aid station, I’d find my dad about a mile out, where he’d ask me what I needed and then phone into my mom and my aunt, who had everything ready to go for me when I came through.  They would even run beside me for a small distance so I wouldn’t have to stop or slow down.  And my dad hates to run.  They definitely saved me at least a few minutes and I am grateful for the sacrifices they made to all day for me.  Not to mention the signs made by my aunt that lifted my spirits and the matching purple and gold T shirts that no one could miss!

In talking with some respected running friends and coaches after the race, they congratulated me on what they considered to be a solid race, despite how I felt.  And when I saw Mike Spinnler at the Hagerstown Turkey Trot a few days later on Thanksgiving (ran a 19:50 5K on brick legs, took 5th place and literally missed winning my age group turkey by ONE second to a 25 yo ahead of me. Gahhhhh.  Still, Ill take it.), he quoted…It takes a good runner to run a great race on a good day.  It takes a great runner to run a good race on a bad day. 
It’s hard when you feel like you have poured your heart and soul into one race for so long.  An entire year worth of blood, sweat and tears poured into one day, a few hours, a single shot to give it everything you’ve got.  You do everything within your power to make this your day, the best day with the greatest feeling you have felt all year.  When something goes wrong, it feels like your world is crumbling around you in that single moment.  To be able to hold it together and push yourself through the end, that’s what takes a great runner. 
In retrospect, I think I learned some important lessons out on that JFK course on that day.  And to be honest, I don’t know that I would trade it for a feel-great glorious Jackie Day.  I think that what I have gained from that race is worth more to me than a glorious finish on a good day, that might have gotten me something like 5th place amongst the women in that field.  And what I gained will surely help to push me through the next adventure I get myself into.

So what’s next…..weeeeellllll…

I can now officially say that it is on January 7th in Texas at the Bandera 100K, the 2012 USA Track and Field 100km Trail National Championships!  I had actually been eyeing this race with Mike before going into JFK, but wanted to wait and see how I recovered before I made the official commitment.  At first, I wallowed in self-doubt for a little after JFK, questioning my endurance and my fitness ability to even be able to complete a race like this.  This will easily be the hardest race I have ever attempted.  Even though 62 miles is just 12 more than 50, the terrain is all single track and apparently pretty rocky and technical and I could easily be on my feet for an additional 4+ hours compared to JFK.  I am both thrilled and scared to death, but we will see what happens out there in that grand old state of TEXAS! 

Check out the slide show my aunt put together!

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