Sunday, November 18, 2007

"More to Life:" a JFK 50-Miler Report

Mikes Keene and Valliant at the pre-race meeting at the Boonsboro High School Gymnasium just prior to the start of the 45th annual JFK 50-mile race.

For what is ostensibly a "race," none of the runners in the JFK 50-mile race seem to be in any sort of hurry. At least not if you run where I do in the race. The opposite really: everyone is chatting, encouraging each other, laughing. It's more like a group run. But that's probably what deciding you are going to try to run 50 miles will do to you.

For those who are less narratively-inclined, there were three Eastern Shore boys that we know ran on Saturday. All three finished:

Stephen Bardsley - 9:35
Mike Keene - 10:35
Mike Valliant - 11:28

If you are interested in scoping the official results, you can check em out on the JFK website. Interesting how we each finished an hour apart from each other, though I have to say that it was in direct proportion to how prepared each of us was. Bardsley trained like a madman. Keene has unbridled energy and seems to bound between strides. And in this particular case, I was not trained well for the challenge, having been sick, then short on time.

It didn't make the most sense for me to try to run on Saturday. But maybe the best way to describe the reason I did is to steal a quote from the back of the shirts a certain team wore: "the JFK 50 miler - there is more to life than logic and common sense."

I had a sense that if I took my time and focused on my mantra for the day--"conservation is key"--that I had a shot at finishing. And crossing the line under the 12-hour cutoff time was my only goal for the day.

The race is a run in three parts: 15-ish miles leading up to and on the Appalachian Trail, 26.4 miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, and then a little more than 8 miles on the road, winding up and down hills to the finish. Anyone who knows me and running, already knows that the single-track and switchbacks on the AT were the highlight of the race for me.

I cruised on the rolling stretches, passing a good number of folks, then zagged ahead of a group I was with on a set of serious switchbacks. I ended up hitting the C&O in a little under 3 hours and 30 minutes.

The canal towpath is scenic, flat, and dirt. Given how long you are on it, it can feel like a revolving loop--that you are running over the same stretch of some alternate reality. Though completely untechnical, and having no hills, this was the hardest part of the race, for mental /psychological reasons.

A few key factors went in to me finishing at all: 1) taking Succeed "S" (electrolyte) caps, which kept my legs cramp-free for 50 miles, 2) a decision to shun Gatorade for water and get calories and carbs from gel, bananas, pretzels, and food along the way, and 3) the advice of JFK veterans on the Annapolis Trail Runners group to tackle the towpath in an 8 minutes running, 2 minutes walking cadence, or some variation thereof.

As soon as I got on the towpath, I started following my watch and rocking the 8-2 split. My 8s were not fast, but I will tell you that 8 minutes seems to last a lot longer than 2. Knowing that I had a scheduled time to walk, and then get going again, kept me occupied and moving forward with a plan. It allowed me to keep moving forward, by design.

That stretch of the canal path was one of the most difficult combinations of mental and physical determination that I have ever been through. I wouldn't call it fun, per se. But what brought it close to being fun, was the STELLAR aid stations, volunteers, crews, fans, etc. who are there cheering, feeding, encouraging everyone. A memorable hand-written sign at one station said, "Never underestimate the power of a large group of stupid people." Another, advice from a wife/crew to her husband running the Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles), "You aren't puking, nothing is broken, so get going!"

The emotional lift I got when we turned off the C&O canal, and stepped back into reality on the road was surreal. With 7 miles to go in the race, I had more energy and better legs than I did with 7 to go in the Baltimore Marathon. I was cruising by people--largely in the dark at this time--giddy, slaphappy, and digging it all. I pushed a little hard, and neglected an aid station, and with 2.5 miles to go, I started feeling light-headed and stumbling a little.

I thought about those people who pass out or collapse within sight of the finish line, and how much that would suck to have happen after running 47.5 miles. So I throttled back and walked the next mile, while sucking down a gel, and some M&Ms at the next aid station. I put back enough in the tank to shuffle downhill and across the flats to come in to the final quarter-mile and be able to run the end and cruise into the finisher chute in 11:28:47.

I found Keene in the locker room and from there, through the bus ride back to Mike's truck, through the entire ride home to the Shore, swapped race stories; folks we ran with; low points and highlights; the overall experience. I will have substantially more to say about what I take away from the JFK at a later date here.

It all comes back to the shirt. Logic and common sense would have had me sitting home (where I am thrilled to be right now!), waiting until I was better trained; or bagging the notion of running 50 miles. Instead I have cultivated, explored, and expanded those parts of the soul and the body, where logic sits quietly, in awe, and enjoys, not having to think.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Acknowledging the Herons

Spotting a heron on Papermill Pond is an unspoken conversation with both Nature and the running gods--it dials me in to the world and often helps psychologically create, or further, a good run. Photo by Robert Grieser, courtesy of CBMM.

I would consider bringing a heron along with me to Hagerstown on Saturday, if it was practical. My friends on Papermill Pond along both St. Michaels and Oxford Roads, scoping a heron often gives me a mental lift and kick-in-the-running-shorts during a long morning run. They've been good for running and for a two-way smile with Creation, a grinning glimpse possible only by putting the time in outside.

There are games, signals, and mental marks all along my frequent routes for runs. This past Friday, on an 8-mile out-and-back up Oxford Road, I passed geese pitching in; startled some whitetail deer across from Waverly Road, and (figuratively) tipped my hat to a heron stationed on the shoreline. It was one of those "why I run" moments, which frequently occur during early morning runs.

Yet, the head-shaking moment came passing the YMCA, both coming and going, with folks plodding along on the treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationery bikes, and stairmasters. I am sure there is something enjoyable about shooshing along to Headline News first thing in the morning, much the same way as a hamster supremely digs the wheel he runs on in his cage. The key difference I see between the two--the treadmiller and the hamster--is that the hamster is making the best of the surroundings he's dealt. The treadmiller chooses his/her wheel.

I don't mean to bust on the cardio-moles here. This is my own, leaning askew perspective--a mindset developed from running outside in a variety of temperatures, seasons, and times of day. I will hop on a stairmaster or treadmill in a pinch and enjoy the workout, but I would rather run in 20 degree weather outside for the adventure of it.

Did someone say adventure? The calendar says that the JFK 50-miler is this Saturday, November 17 with a 7 a.m. start. Training and health have been makeshift, as has been well-documented in past entries, but feel like they have been moving slowly in the right direction. I ran my 8-miler on Friday in 1:13:32, at a sustainable pace, for negative splits, with a good pace for the last 2 or so miles. That puts the pace at a hair over 9-minute miles without really dropping the hammer.

Conditioning, nutrition, equipment, weather on the tangible side; momentum, determination, Aries-like stubbornness on the intangible, will be telling factors for Saturday.

Funny, somehow I have already moved my running outlook to the other side of the race, appreciating runs of any distance; savoring the setting; running just to run, not as part of a training plan, but as a way of life, a way of being; and acknowledging the herons.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Running in the Woods

July, October--what's the difference really when you get to go run in the woods?

Much on the mind these days...Monday, October 29, met Stephen Bardsley and Mike Keene for a longish Tuckahoe run, which ended up at 2:56:51 for me (which includes clock running during an 11-minute refueling break at the end of about 10 miles, reached in 1:51), and 5-10 minutes less for the speedier Bardsley and Wood Frog. Must have been a 15-ish mile run when all was done, perhaps farther. It was great to be running in the woods, catching up and talking shop about the JFK-50 miler. It was an encouraging run for me, 1) in that in many stretches I could just run like a kid, smile on face, and feet on terrain, and 2) my legs actually got tired before my breath gave out, which is REALLY encouraging after recent runs. Bardsley and Keene, in my mind, are poised for great first-time finishes at JFK. I am hoping to rock the under-12-hour finish, given my conditioning and training as of now.

Much on the mind these days...Nov. 3 was a new day for American marathon running with Ryan Hall dominating--as in pulling away from an elite field of American marathoners by running a 4:35 mile at like mile 18--the field, to win the Olympic Marathon trials in NYC, in only his second marathon race. He is also the guy who set the new American half-marathon record by running the half in 59 minutes and change. However, what should have been a straight-up celebration, ends up a sad day for running as 28-year-old Ryan Shay, one of the best of the Americans, dies suddenly at mile 5-and-a-half.

Much on the mind these days...the next day, Martin Lel and Paula Radcliffe win the NYC marathon, with Tour de France legend and now Olson twin dater Lance Armstrong rocking a 2:46 marathon, bettering his 06 time by 14 minutes or so, and Tom Cruise wife Katie Holmes runs her first marathon in 5:23. Certainly a circus of a marathon, with celebrities, elites, and the world's biggest city as a backdrop.

Much on the mind these days...a stellar weekend spent with family, which included a fantastic bonfire get-together at Wood Frog's Wittman lily pad, with all kinds and all ages. I enjoyed the time with friends and family there, and the rest of the weekend with not much of an agenda, but a lot of good time with the girls.

Much on the mind these days...a question of balance and discipline to make time for things to happen. Haven't run in a week, since Tuckahoe, am entering a planning, creative, forward-looking, forward-thinking time at work right now; Girl Scouts and gymnastics for the girls; freelance writing jobs; Historical Society board; keeping up with everyone and everything. Wished-for abundance, but tough to keep pace at times.

Much on the mind these days...thankful. Brought home by the simplicity of one foot in front of the other, either in quiet or with tunes. But brought home also by Charles Schulz and tracking down a copy of Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving, and Linus' great thoughts on Thanksgiving and the fact that America is the first country to have made a national holiday to give thanks.

Much on the mind these days...but I am going to stop on thanks. And abundance. And family. And work. And running in the woods. Like a kid.