Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Pattern Revealed: JFK 50 Recap

The Pattern:

A year and a half ago I was training for my first half marathon and it couldn't have gone better. On race day I was on target to meet my sub-2 hour goal until I hit the last 0.5 mile, which ended up being a monster hill and I just couldn't handle it. I finished, but behind schedule. Six months later I ran my first full marathon. Again, near perfect training, but that didn't stop me from developing an odd quad cramp at mile 7 (mile 7 man!) that again ruined my time goal. So I really shouldn't have been surprised when things didn't go exactly according to plan for my first 50 mile race. The first time is, apparently, never the charm.

The Recap:

My sister, husband, and I drove down to western Maryland from Philly on Friday afternoon, picked up my packet, checked into our hotel, and got dinner at a nearby Japanese restaurant. Miso soup, avocado rolls, and salmon teriyaki is just what I needed.

I slept surprisingly well and woke up on my own around 4 am, feeling a little anxious, but still not nervous. I ate a banana and bagel with jam and we were out the door. My race day outfit had been pretty cemented, but when we walked outside the hotel and saw frost I was having second thoughts. We drove to Boonsboro High School for the pre-race meeting and I put on a warmer zip up with plans to change into my lighter long sleeve later in the day.

Me and Caitlin at the start line

We walked the half mile or so to the start line and then I began looking for Abbi and Alyssa. I found Abbi pretty quickly and we were mid-conversation when the starting gun went off and all of a sudden we were running.

Abbi and I starting the race

The race is split into three segments: 15.5 miles on the Appalachian Trail, 26.3 miles on the C&O, and 8.4 miles on the roads. We had a steady 2+ mile climb to get to the AT. The cold temperature kept me moving pretty steadily and I only walked once or twice near the top because I feared I was going out to fast. This is also about the time I lost Abbi in the crowd. It felt good to finally get on the trail and it didn't seem any rockier than the trail I had been running on near my house.

At mile 3 something we hit a paved section in the woods. If you want to see a picture of this hill check out Alyssa's recap. Not a single person was running this part and I was leaning over my things trying to catch my breath. After I reached the top and got back on the trail there was a lovely gentleman telling us that we were at mile 5.3, which may not seem like a big deal in a 50 mile race, but I remembered from the elevation map that we peaked around mile 5 so I was happy to know that the hilly part was pretty much over.

I was bounding through the woods at a pretty good pace, passing a lot of people, and feeling like a rock star. The 9.3 mile aid station came in no time at all and then it was just a 10k to the Weverton, where we would exit the trail and I would see Mike and Caitlin again. 6 miles didn't seem bad at all, but the course got rockier and rockier and after I tripped a few times I sufficiently scared all of the confidence out of myself. I probably wouldn't have had as many issues if I had done more training on trails, but it was what it was.

It was around mile 10 that I also began noticing my right knee hurting a bit. I had first noticed it around mile 8 as I was bounding over logs and leading with my right leg. It began to bother me more so I tried to slow my pace and not tweak it anymore. The last two miles on the AT I thought were a real killer. The rocks were so sharp that even in my trail shoes my feet were aching. I kept almost twisting my ankle and I was near tears a few times because I was so frustrated. Finally I reached the famous switchbacks and I could hear the crowd in Weverton. I was impatient to get to the bottom, but I had to keep it slow so I wouldn't break my neck.

If you love rocks, this trail is for you
I was so excited to see Mike and Caitlin. After a swig of Gatorade and some animal crackers I grabbed Mike and we were off to tackle the canal portion. I also took an Advil here, which is important to note because I never ever take pain medicine while running out of fear for my health. From here on out the plan was to just focus on getting to next aid station, which were spread 2.5-4 miles apart, and take something to eat and drink at every single one. It felt great to get on flat terrain and not have worry about constantly looking down to avoid the rocks.

We started going at a pretty decent pace. By mile 16 I realized how sore I actually was. How many 20 mile runs did I do in training and I'm sore by mile 16? What the hell!? We hit the next aid station at mile 18 and that's when I realized my knee might turn into a real problem. I had already been running about 10 miles on it with some discomfort, but it was clearly getting worse. We continued to run, stopping maybe every 10 minutes to walk for a minute, but I noticed that it starting hurting more to start running again, so I tried to keep running for as long as possible until I couldn't take it anymore. Mike was great about just talking my ear off and keeping me motivated, but around mile 23 I started to break down into tears a little bit. Soreness I can take, but the knee pain was becoming excruciating.

The next spectator/crew point was at mile 27. At that point I was feeling better since I knew I was over the halfway point and I had fewer hours of running left than I had already done. Mike and Caitlin were absolutely brilliant at this aid station. It was like Nascar. In 2 minutes they had my shoes switched along with my chip tag through my laces, my bib removed, my shirt changed, and my bib re-pinned.

Mike stopped pacing me here and Caitlin jumped on course. My spirits were immediately lifted since I hadn't seen my sister in a few months and I knew we had tons to catch up on. I told her about my knee and asked her to just talk to me. I felt much better for the next couple of miles, but by mile 34 I was deteriorating again. My mind was so wrapped around the physical pain that I felt much more exhausted than I think I should have been. I started slurring my words at one point and lost all energy to talk.

At mile 38 we saw Mike again and I took another Advil. My spirits were lifted slightly knowing that the canal portion was almost over. Oddly enough it wasn't the monotony of this section that killed me, but the focus on my knee. We reached mile 41.8 about 20 minutes after 3 pm, which meant we had to wear the so-called "vests of shame." It didn't really bother me to wear it. I rather not be hit by a car if I was going to be out after dark.

There was a good sized hill getting off the canal that we walked up, but after that so called "scary" rolling hills were a piece of cake and we ran all of them. Out of the entire race I felt my best during these last 8 miles. My knee pain was by no means gone, but knowing I had single digits left plus the fact that now my whole body was in pain which made the knee stand out less, made getting through it a little easier.

At mile 44 a girl caught up to Caitlin and I and it turned out to be Alyssa! I was so so happy to see her! I knew we had similar time goals going into this race, but since I hadn't seen her on the canal I figured we wouldn't end up getting together. Caitlin left me at the last crew access point at mile 46. I gave her and Mike a hug and then Alyssa and I headed off for the finish line. I think I would have been okay doing these last 4 miles on my own, but I wouldn't have turned down Alyssa's company in a million years. 30 minutes flew by and all of a sudden we saw the 1 mile marker. As we made the last right turn and heard the finish line crowd it was so surreal. Somehow I managed to sprint the last .1 miles and I flew across the finish line.

Final Stats: 9:53:15 - "A" goal success!

Alyssa and I flashing our gold medals - we also came in top 10 in our AG, which is pretty cool!

OMG I'm never getting up again
Before I wrap this thing all up let me just take a moment to say that Mike and Caitlin were by far the best crew/pacers I could have ever asked for. Without them I seriously question whether or not I would have even finished. I am forever grateful for their support.

I shed a lot of tears during this race, both happy and sad. I definitely did not expect to feel so physically challenged and it remains to be seen if I have caused any long term damage to my knee or if it will subside in a few days. What I do know is that I ran 40+ miles with what ranged from manageable to excruciating amounts of pain far worse than I've ever encountered over such long period of time. Truth be told I was hoping to come in with a sub-9:30 finish time and while I should be no means be disappointed (after all I did run 50 freaking miles) it was definitely not a perfect race day. 

And what does this mean? It means that the first thing I did when I woke up this morning was to open up my computer and start looking at 50 mile races for the spring, because now I have something to beat. Bring. It. On. 


  1. Congrats! You had an awesome race for having that kind of pain in your knee. I hope it subsides soon! When I looked at the results, I was thrilled to see you and Alyssa finish together. Great job, you are an amazing runner!

  2. You are a total machine! I completely get how awful those lows feel, but what I love about ultras is the ability to dig out of that hole to have a great race, just like you did! Enjoy basking in the glory!

  3. I still have NO IDEA how you pulled off that sprint at the end, I was amazed at the time and looking at that picture I didn't realize I was so far behind you! Way to finish strong! Also I know I walked a lot more up those hills at the start, so well done (although I was exhausted from my sprint before the start). No crowds for us! I need to train Eric in Nascar crewing, I never even thought of having him do that and I wasted a ton of time switching that stupid chip. I am so impressed that you not only finished but did so well with so much pain. The next time will be a piece of cake, right?

  4. Excellent! I couldnt wait to read this. So sorry to hear about your knee though (I know all to well). And I am with you about taking pain meds during a race. And how cool to have your family and blog friends there to all experience this with you. Congrats again!!
    So which 50s are on your radar for next year then? Are you thinking trail again or do you want to find a road ultra?

  5. Great job, way to get through it! Take care of yourself and rest up.


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