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.


Rainmaker said...

Awesome job, and good report! 50, that's a long...long way.

I like that saying - "Never underestimate the power of a large group of stupid people." - I think I'm going to put it on the back of a shirt or something for my next race. I believe has it on posters too.

Stephen Bardsley said...

MV,CONGRATS! The front of the Hagerstown paper Sunday morning said "a finish is a win"! Im glad we all won! Cant wait untill you and I and Keene can check out the herons together without a race on the radar! Gotta go, now its family time! later, stephen Bardsley

Doug Hanks said...

I kept re-reading this to see if I was misunderstanding something. 50 miles?! Close to two marathons. How is that even possible?