Going into this race, I had A, B, and C goals. Secretly, my A+ goal was to PR, which would be sub-9:34. I knew it was going to be tough since I had no clue how tough the Appalachian Trail and the boring C&O Canal would be. My A goal then was go to sub-10 hours, B goal was sub-11 hours, and C goal was to finish in the given time, 12 hours.
Different than in previous years, I hired a running coach to help me. I was bored of coming up with my own plans and with a lot of friends finding success with Michele Yates, I hired her for 6 months (I still have a few months left). While I find myself to be a lower mileage runner compared to a lot of ultra runners, I found myself doing a lot of speed work, cross training 2-3 times a week, and running a lot fewer miles than in years past. I was a bit nervous about this shift, but couldn't complain as I felt myself getting faster, I wasn't running for hours upon hours on weekends, and I knew to trust Michele and her plan. So glad that I used her as I know her plan helped me succeed during the double race weekend!
The Friday before the race, I trained down to DC to my mom's house. A few hours later, she drove us to Reagan National Airport to pick up that crazy runner who also signed up, Jen. We drove to a favorite sushi restaurant of ours, ate a delicious buffet of sushi, then finished the drive to our race hotel. We picked up our bibs (easy when it's in the lobby of where you are staying), ate dinner, and got ready for the cold and long day ahead.
I had terrible night of sleep, which was filled with nightmares. I woke up and slowly got ready, not exactly excited to brave the cold temperatures (when we started the race, it was 18 degrees). We layered up, packed up the car, and headed to the start. We hit the bathrooms and sat through the second half of the race meeting. Seeing a school gym filled with all of the racers got me so excited and nervous!
Soon, we were walking the .5 mile to the start and I was getting nervous. Had my training been enough? Had I skipped one too many workouts (I hadn't skipped many, but I'd say I did 80-85% of my coach-prescribed running)? Before I could even think about it, the National Anthem was being sung and shortly after, the gun went off.
The course started on paved roads for the first 2.5 miles before joining the Appalachian Trail (AT). And man, we mostly went uphill for the 2.5 miles. I slowly jogged up and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Everyone seemed nice and chatty and at least the sun was up! After the 2.5 miles, we joined the AT, where we spent the next 13ish miles.
I love running trails, but I don't have easy access to them in Philly without using the car. When I'm already busy, going down a mile to get our car, drive at least 30 minutes to get to trails, run, then come back, it's not usually feasible in my schedule. The AT was no joke for someone who spent 95% of her training on roads. It was rocky, it was steep (uphill and downhill), and it was technical. I rolled my ankle at least 6 different times, but for some reason, found a way to stay upright (shocking for how clumsy I am and how easy it was to fall on the trail).
|One small paved section from miles 3.5-5.5|
As the miles ticked away, I kept waiting for the steep switchbacks that the course description warned us all about. The miles kept ticking away and I thought, "Man, did we pass them and I didn't notice? That seems implausible." I was correct, we hadn't! I struggled more with downhills on the AT since it's more painful when gravity comes into play and my hamstrings felt it by mile 12. They SCREAMED at me when we got to the switchbacks. When you looked straight down, there was a steep fall a few hundred feet down. I kept looking just ahead at the course so that I didn't 1) freak the hell out at the steepness and 2) I didn't fall. It was scary, but everyone was bunched up and cracking jokes, which made it easier.
One awesome thing about the race was that aid stations were really frequent! We had one at mile 4, mile 10, and 16 (all before getting off the AT). I was able to see my mom at mile 15, but due to a misunderstanding on my part, I didn't stop to say hi. I thought I was coming back and could do so, but I was wrong and I felt horrible for not stopping to give her a hug. I couldn't do a sliver of my running without my mom as my crew and I felt horrible for not stopping to give her the hug she deserved (and that I wanted to give her!). I made sure to text her that I was sorry for missing her, that I loved her, and that I'd see her at the next stop!
|Amazing homemade cookie from one of the aid stations|
For those who know, I have one DNF race ever and it was the C&O Canal 100 miler. It is still a bitter subject for me and I had about 26 miles left of the course to finish when I dropped. I told myself that this boring section of the course was doing to be my redemption, my way to feel slightly better about it since I was going to then have completed 100 miles on the C&O (mind you, in two races haha).
A friend of mine who had done the JFK 50 before said that the C&O Canal section is difficult because it's pretty much flat and the scenery doesn't change all that much. Also, due to strict no headphone rules, you have to try to not go crazy on said boring, flat section without the help of music. I took her advice and started talking with a runner who was going around my pace. His name was Pete and it was his first 50 mile attempt. He was a math teacher at a community college in Baltimore and we chatted for the next 10 or so miles about our running, our lives, and anything else to keep each other entertained.
|Around mile 27|
I was proud of myself that I didn't walk unless I was at an aid station. I kept my slower paced running, which ranged from 9:30 min/mile to 11 minute/mile. We usually kept about 10-10:30 min/mile pace, which actually felt easy and not too hard! I was a bit ahead of schedule, but I felt good about trying to hit my goals and was even in range to PR!
At the Antietam Aqueduct, mile 27.1, I saw my mom again. We were nearly 30 miles through and I had done over 10 miles on the C&O Canal. My legs were already hurting, but I was surprised that the hamstring soreness I had starting at mile 12 had gone away, in turn, shifting into back pain. I was then angry about that as I had done so much core work this training cycle and my back had ZERO reason to be so sore. But I trudged along and kept going.
|The C&O Canal. How boring you were.|
I would come upon Pete at times, where we'd run for a few miles together, then we'd separate at an aid station. It felt nice to at least have one "friend" to find along the course. The aid stations were coming along, but I was getting frustrated as my GPS watch kept saying I was further along than the course markings said. I know that GPS watches aren't always accurate, but it kept giving me this false thought that I was minutes ahead of my PR pace. I was really good about running the tangents (the canal path did wind, even if it was fairly flat), but my watch kept gaining on the mile markers. I tried to keep this anger internal and pushed through.
|Do you see the exhaustion in my eyes?!|
At the JFK 50 miler, if you can't get to the 42 mile mark before 3 pm, you are forced to wear a reflective vest, coined by other runners as the "Vest of Shame." I thought that I'd surely get it before I started the race, but being a bit ahead of schedule, I thought I was in the clear to avoid getting it. Well lo and behold, I got there at 3:05 pm, just missing my chance to run without it. I was slightly embarrassed, then I realized that I was still in a good spot to hit my A goal (PR was just out of reach, I correctly figured) and heck, I was going to finish the most historic ultra in the country in a not completely embarrassing time.
I finally walked for the first long period of time when we got off the C&O Canal path and hit the last ~8 miles on rolling country roads. I found another runner going about my pace and started chatting with him. I am kicking myself for never exchanging names with the fellow, but he was originally from South Africa and has been running for 40+ years. He ran his first marathon after only running the occasional 5 mile jog and qualified for the historic Comrades Marathon, a 50 mile race in South Africa that people travel all over to race. He's run it 11 times now and after spending the last 20+ years in the US, he's racked up some impressive race finishes here, too. We laughed and chatted while we slowly jogged the hilly country roads.
|A Lil' Sebastian lookalike I found along the last few miles of the course.|
The last couple of miles were painful, but I pushed the pace and was able to keep a sub-10 minute mile pace. A local running friend, Yoshiko Jo, is another runner under my coach and is a fantastically dedicated and talented runner. She's won a handful of 100 milers JUST THIS YEAR. She just ran 118 miles at the One Day at the Fair run in NJ in ONE FREAKING DAY. I saw that she ran it last year in 9:48 and while she's 1000% in better shape than me right now, I kept her time as a goal to beat. Maybe that's mean, but to be even close to Yoshiko's race times never crossed my mind and I know she'd crush me this year if she was racing it, too.
As I pushed the last few hundred yards of the finish, still in the light (yay for not having to use a headlamp), I got so excited to see my time was sub-9:40. I finished in 9:39:31. I was just 5 minutes off of my PR and that was with my watch clocking me at 51 miles. My PR is at the Dirty German 50 Miler, which I found to be easier than JFK, so I'm one happy camper. I was so relieved to be done, get the medal around my neck, give back that stupid Vest of Shame, and to sit down. I had finished this race that was tough physically and mentally.
I found my mom shortly after, we headed inside the school to eat food and chat with other runners, and wait for my friend Jen to finish. Jen, by the way, raced Ironman AZ the week before and was running with a lot of skin missing from one of her toes. It hurt her to walk, yet she finished this 50 miler no freaking sweat. She's insane, but man, I'm glad to know her.
We ate up, changed, got in the car, then my saint of a mother drove us the 3ish hours back to Philly so we could get up to run the Philadelphia Marathon the next day. The idea of waking up and running again sounded horrible, but we'd do it. But that story is for another race report...