I say all of this not to espouse how great I am, what a hard worker I am, or to make you feel bad for only running a 5K. I say it all, as I begin to write this report, to remind myself how absolutely lucky I am to be able to do what I do. It is HARD. It is, at times, defeating, humbling, and wildly uncomfortable. But it is oh so worth it. Onto the report...
If you're only interested in the race, skip this section. I find it helpful, though, when people outline how they trained for a race. I trained specifically for the JFK for about four months. Of course, I was running lots of miles before then (had a great summer of training), but tailored my training for the course and distance beginning in late July. My training structure was quite simple: run tons of miles (a lot of them on hills) and don't get hurt. That is what I did for my first 50 miler, the Ice Age 50, back in May. So I planned to do sort of the same thing, though take it up a few notches in terms of mileage volume. If you know me at all, you know I have had, in the past, a horrible string of running injuries. In training for my first 50, I learned that I can run a LOT of miles...as long as I run them very slowly. So that's what I did this cycle. I ran multiple 100+ mile weeks, 30+ mile runs followed the next day by 20+ mile runs (multiple times), and twice a day most other days. But my heart rate stayed low...even though I ran on challenging courses. For me, when training for an ultra, this works. Big, slow miles. That's it, in a nutshell.
I had a very good training cycle. I didn't suffer any injuries that resulted in me missing training. I tapered well (though I absolutely hate taper), and I ran more miles than ever. I felt like I had done all I could, though I admit to (as usual) questioning whether it was enough.
|JFK Race Course|
We arrived, checking into the "Race Headquarters" hotel in Hagerstown. For those of you who have not done ultras, let me explain that a "Race Headquarters" hotel is NOTHING like what you're imagining if you're accustomed to doing road marathons. There is no expo. There aren't any flashy signs, people signing autographs, or speeches being made. There are a handful of volunteers, most of them white-haired, by the hotel pool handing you your race packets. I knew this was a "big" ultra when they were actually selling shoes at the packet pick up! JFK actually is a very big ultra--the oldest in the United States, and run by 1,000 people. That's big in the ultra world...and it also draws lots of elites. It's widely known as a gem of ultra running.
When we woke on Friday, we decided to go take a look at various parts of the course. The JFK is an interesting animal--it's basically divided into three very distinct sections. The first is 15.5 miles of the very technical and extraordinarily ROCKY Appalachian Trail (AT). The next 26+ miles are on the very slightly uphill C&O canal towpath. The course ends with 8.5 miles of rolling, country roads. The courses within the course make this a somewhat complex (and fun) race for which to plan. Over the last few weeks, Tim and I had searched fervently for JFK race reports with one goal in mind--to find out just how difficult the AT truly is. We are both experienced trail runners, but had never run on anything like this before. People told us it was rocky. In some reports, people called them "jagged boulders." Others said the rocks "weren't that bad...only in a few sections." But our research left us with one resounding message: TAKE IT EASY ON THE AT.
So we drove to various parts of the AT to prepare ourselves for just how difficult/rocky it really would be. Well, it was more rocky than I could have imagined. I don't mean small, loose rocks. I mean HUGE, sharp boulders. EVERYWHERE. We only saw about a mile or two of it, but I was thoroughly convinced that I would probably trip and fall during the race. It made me a bit scared. Tim actually ran a bit of it. I spent the time engraving Buddy's name on a few big boulders (using a smaller rock) so that we could look for them during the race.
|Tim on the AT|
|With the Birthday Girl|
For the night before a race, I slept decently. I woke up and immediately checked the weather--it was 41 degrees. Perfect. Except the temperature was supposed to drop throughout the race. It was also very windy, with a 25-30 mph headwind predicted for the afternoon. Nothing to be done about it. At least it was not raining.
Around 5:30, we got in our car and made the 15 minute drive to Boonsboro High School, where we would wait in the gym before walking about one kilometer to the race start in downtown Boonsboro. The gym was rather empty when we arrived. Again, such a stark contrast to road racing...no music blaring, no one on a microphone...just runners, quietly and silently preparing for the day's work, greeting one another.
|Pre-race, in the Boonsboro HS gym|
As we approached the line (which, I swear, was a line on the street drawn with chalk...another reason I heart ultra running), they gave the one minute warning. I still had my warm ups on, and I really had to pee. But there was no time, none at all. I stripped off my warm ups, and before I knew it heard them counting down from 10. I kissed Tim, and frantically searched for Kevin to give him my clothes. He wasn't there. The gun went off. I couldn't find him. So I gave my clothes to an old lady on her porch, and told her I might come back to get them later that day. I didn't. Hope she knows someone that they will fit. And just like that, the race had begun. No music, no fanfare, just a little "bang," and something I had been training my heart, soul, mind, and body for was finally underway.
Before I get into the race, though, let me explain the plan. I had four goals (runners always have multiple goals, in case one falls through...and the last goal is always just to finish). A goal: 8:20. B goal: 8:30. C goal: Better my 8:57 from Ice Age. D goal: finish. Usually, I finish somewhere between my A and B goals. But I always plan for A. I had methodically figured out what I needed to do on each of the sections in order to run 8:20.
First, I had to hold back--way, way back--on the AT. I am a very strong trail runner, and I excel at it. But I would have to swallow my pride and go slowly if I wanted to have a good race. I planned to run the AT in 2 hours, 50 minutes. It sounded so painfully slow every time I had thought or said it, but I knew I had to do it. Another tidbit--there is a 2 mile road climb called "South Mountain" that leads you to the AT. I had been debating on running the entire thing, or walk/running it in order to conserve energy. Tim and I drove it the day before, and it didn't look that scary to me, so I decided to run it...keeping my heart rate at 149 or below (that is my MAF heart rate). The plan for the tow path was simple: run 9:15ish pace the entire time. Same for the roads...for the first four miles, just maintain that, then speed up if at all possible (I suspected it wouldn't be).
I also planned to drink a ton of water and Gatorade. At Ice Age, I struggled terribly with cramping. It was a cool day (though not as cool as this day), and I didn't drink enough. It cost me a lot of time and agony. At Ice Age, I carried the handheld that I would be carrying during this race. But at Ice Age, I made a mistake--I didn't drink any water at the aid stations...just filled up my bottle and drank it until the next station. On this day, I planned to drink two full cups of water at each station, as well as my handheld between the stops.
I had also come up with a completely new nutrition plan (I'm sorry if this is boring, but if you're new to something like this, it may actually help you...I've learned so much from other peoples' blogs). At Ice Age, I ate a gel or shot blocks every 30 minutes. I also suffered horrible and frequent diarrhea during that race, which made my muscle cramping worse. In training, I hardly eat at all during runs...in fact, on long runs, I "go empty," meaning that I intentionally do not fuel in order to make my body more efficient at burning fat for fuel...the goal being to teach my body how to avoid "hitting the wall" when racing long distances. I frequently did 30 mile training runs with nothing but Gatorade and, though I did get hungry, I never felt under fueled during those. So, this time, I decided to eat less. A lot less. Like, half as much. I would eat every hour (more if I felt physically hungry, as in my stomach growling), and after 40 I would not eat at all unless I just felt hungry. Most people will tell you to eat every 30-45 minutes during an endurance event, and I do think that works for a lot of people. Me? It just makes me poop. I also decided to eat fewer gels, and more "real" food. For me, real food comes in the form of crunchy Clif Bars. I was nervous about trying these new strategies, but I had practiced them without incident during training.
The AT: Miles 0-15.5 "This is dad's worst nightmare."
We started on the road. I was in trail shoes given that we'd be on the AT soon, and that's what I remember first thinking as we started..."I hate wearing trail shoes on the road." My next thought was, "I really have to pee." Running with a full bladder is uncomfortable. I had majorly hydrated in the days leading up to the race, hoping to avoid muscle cramps. And, well, I had to go. But I'd have to wait, because I was in the middle of a cute, quaint little town called Boonsboro. People were out on their porches...clapping and cheering. I saw men getting hair cuts in a barber shop (at 7 am on a Saturday...odd!). I saw kids with signs. I saw lots of dogs, which made my heart sting.
Runners streamed by me. I didn't care. I had a plan. I felt good. Relaxed, strong, and ready. In my head, I kept rehearsing the plan for this section of the race. My mind then began to wander, as I noticed how FREAKISHLY OVERDRESSED everyone was. It seemed as though 90% of them were in full tights and long sleeved shirts. I had on shorts, singlet, and arm warmers. And I was comfortable.
Then came the climb--"the mountain." It was not bad. At all. At least not to me, because I run great big hills. I made my way up it, running the entire time, without even breathing hard. My HR stayed low. I grew concerned at hearing people around me gasping for air. We were at mile 2 out of 50. I wanted to tell them to please save themselves for later by walking now, but figured they might not take that well. The mountain went on for about a mile and a half. At times, it got steep, but I stayed within my HR range, and reached the top feeling fresh as a daisy. And also like my bladder would explode. There were porta potties. But there were already lines for them. Not stopping. Onto the trail.
We left the road and were immediately on a single track trail. To my surprise, there were no rocks. This section was highly runnable. The only problem was...I was behind people who were going very slowly. Probably the people who nearly killed themselves on the hill. I spent the first few miles saying "On your left. Thank you." as I passed scores of runners. I momentarily panicked that I was going too slowly, but shut out that thought when I reminded myself that this was to be a very long day. We hit the first aid station. I drank two cups of water, filled my bottle, and was off.
Then something odd happened. The trail changed from dirt to pavement. I'm not kidding--in the middle of the AT, there is something that looks like a golf cart path. And it was terribly hilly...very, very steep. I hiked it. This went on for a couple of miles. I'd run, then hike the steep parts. I was dumbfounded about why this pavement was here, but Ed Ayres was not there for me to ask.
Then, back to trail. All I could think about was how badly I had to pee. I didn't want to stop and go, though, because I knew that all the people I'd worked so hard to pass earlier on the trail would again be in front of me...and I'd have to pass them all over again. So I kept holding it. I knew the next aid station was about four miles away, and I hoped they had porta potties, though I didn't mind going in the woods, either.
We did some more climbing...and then? The rocks. It's difficult to describe it, and I kept wishing I'd had my phone to take pictures. The ground was covered in deeply-rooted, very large jagged rocks. Those rocks were then covered by leaves, so you couldn't always see them. What I had to do was more hopping than running. I jumped from rock to rock...for miles. It was truly maddening. I've never had to concentrate so hard whilst running. I could not look up for a second, or I would fall. I found myself thinking, "This is dad's worst nightmare." My dad doesn't do well on technical trails, and he absolutely hates rocks. I wanted to somehow be able to show him what I was running on at that very moment. I saw and heard people falling all around me. It was kind of like being in a war zone--I just wanted to escape alive. I kept coming up behind people on the rocks, and almost running them over due to looking at the ground. Passing was nearly impossible, but I did it. To make matters worse, the sun was still in the process of fully rising, and it was blinding me. And I STILL HAD TO PEE.
I did not want to stop and pee yet. I had it in my mind that stopping while on the rocks would mess up my rhythm. So I kept going. I battled the rocks a while longer, and finally hit a "kind of" normal part of the trail--rocks were still there, but I could run. I passed more people, and finally stopped to pee. I felt like a new person after that. I reached the 9 mile aid station, gulped down two cups of water, filled my bottle, and was off. I had taken some of my own food in at an hour, and was sticking to that. I glanced at my watch--I had planned to hit this aid station at 1:40. It was 1:37. "Slow down," I said aloud as I took off from the aid station.
The next section of the trail was not terribly rocky, but included very steep climbs. I hiked them as fast as I could. There were still lots of runners around me. I spoke with several of them...that is the fun thing about an ultra. You run with people for a few miles, learn all about them and why they are there, and then never see them again. People kept asking me if I was cold. I was not. I wondered to myself if they were roasting, given they were all over-dressed, but I didn't say a word. After the climbs, there were some beautiful paths on which I ran, keeping my heart rate low. I also had to stop to use the bathroom again. This was a GOOD thing--I was drinking enough!
The rest of the trail is kind of a blur to me. The next thing I remember clearly is seeing a guy, a spectator, standing off the trail, saying, "The switchbacks are about a mile from here." He was talking about Weverton Cliffs. Cliff is the absolutely correct word to describe this section of the trail, which also marked the near-end of the AT section. I ran the next mile comfortably, and then reached a traffic jam at the switchbacks. Tim and I had discussed this possibility, and here it was happening to me. I remained calm, and elected not to try and jump around people. People were actually very nice about letting me pass when it was possible; most of the time, it was not.
I was again concentrating so hard that my head hurt, and took a moment to glance at how very high we were. My ears had even popped. Then I heard it--spectators. I could hear the faint cow bells and encouraging screams of people at the exit of the AT. I said something to the woman in front of me, "I hear them!" She promptly tripped and fell. I helped her up, then kept going. The rocks got VERY, VERY bad the last half mile. My goal was simply not to fall. Surprisingly, I was able to run this section. When I had seen it the day before, I was convinced I'd have to walk to avoid falling.
I saw Buddy's rock, touched it, and made the final descent down to the road, where there was a huge crowd waiting. As my foot hit the pavement, I glanced at my watch. 2:50. Boom. Precisely what I had planned to run the AT in. Kevin was there, and told me that Sara and Michele were just down on the right. I saw them quickly, which was like a breath of fresh air, and sat down in the chairs they had set up in order to change from trail shoes to my Frees. They were wonderful--they moved my chip from one pair of shoes to the next, gave me food, etc. I told them, "I feel like I haven't done anything yet. I feel fresh as a daisy." I asked about Tim, heard he was about 15-20 minutes ahead of me and looking good, and I was off. I had to run about another half mile before reaching the C&O canal path.
|Shoe changed, assisted by Michele.|
The C&O Canal: Miles 16-42.7 "I have a job to do."
I arrived at the path, where there was an aid station. I stopped for a moment to tighten my shoe laces, drank more water, tossed my gloves, and was off. In the first few strides, I tried to collect myself. There was no need to rush--I had a marathon on this section of the race, and I needed to stay in control. Then, six words came to mind: "I have a job to do." These words I repeated to myself while birthing both of my children, and especially Rowan, who was born in a completely natural manner. I found myself feeling like a soldier--take down each mile as it comes. Don't get distracted...do your job, Wendy.
I settled into a comfortable pace, waiting for my watch to click over to mile 17, and then began attempting to do math. I'm a reasonably intelligent person, but I find doing math while running, and particularly while racing, nearly impossible. I wanted to figure out what I had to run in order to make my goal of 8:20. I didn't care if it was 8:20:59, I just wanted under 8:21. It took me a couple of miles, but I finally came to the conclusion that if I could run about 9:30 miles the rest of the way, I could do it. I glanced at my watch, and I was running about 9:15 pace. I glanced at my HR--it was in the low 140s. Then I just decided, "I'm running by HR through mile 42." I decided it on a whim--I would keep my HR under 150 (which is considered a low heart rate run for me) until I hit the road. If my pace slipped and I could not maintain a 9:30 pace at that HR, I'd have to consider letting the HR drift up a little bit. For now, though, I would run as fast as that HR would allow.
And so I ran. And ran, and ran, and ran. Miles clicked off quickly...all of them around 9:04 to 9:15. I continued to have to pee a lot, stopping three times before I even hit the marathon mark. So there were a few slow miles in there due to the pit stops (which, by the way, were all behind trees...I could never find a vacant porta potty!). People streamed by me the first six miles on the path. Again, I didn't care. I was methodically doing my job. I felt completely fine, if a little antsy. I kept playing leap frog with a guy in an Ironman jersey. He would pass me, then he'd stop and walk, and I'd pass him.
Finally, he struck up a conversation. "How do those shoes feel?" he asked. "Oh, they feel great." I was jarred by having to communicate with someone--I was totally inside my own head. "I wore those last year, and I wish I had this year." I looked down, and he was wearing Newtons. Bad choice, dude. He ran next to me a bit, and then asked if I was cold. Next, he said, "So are you running this whole thing?" "That's the plan," I replied. I told him I had hiked some on the AT, but that from here on out I would run (minus the steep climb from the path to the road, which would happen much later). He informed me that he was running four minutes, walking one minute, and told me maybe I should try that. I laughed, explaining that I would not deviate from my plan. He kept talking to me. I was not irritated with him, but I didn't like being distracted from what I was doing. I stopped to pee again, and he was gone.
Shortly before the marathon mark, I was joined by an older gentleman, age 60, who was running his 35th JFK. He was wonderful, telling me all about the history of the event (which I knew from Ed, but it was still nice to hear) and how the course had changed a bit over the years. It was around this time that I noticed the wind really picking up. It was a steady head wind. I said something about it, and he said, "You must be cold." I was not in the slightest...just aware that I was running into a wall of wind now. We hit an aid station, where I again did my routine: give my bottle to a volunteer to fill, drink one gatorade, drink one water, grab bottle, and leave. The older gentleman yelled at me, "Hey, girl in short shorts...you have a great race! I can't keep up with you but I sure wish I could see you finish. I have seen lots of people run this race, and I know enough to know that you're going to have a GREAT DAY!" I waved and went ahead. I was encouraged.
I felt so good, so in control. I was not tired, I was not cramping, and the miles continued to come and go so quickly. I took a moment to do an inventory of everything. Did anything hurt? No. I could *just* begin to feel my quads, but only if I thought about it. I said aloud, "It's actually working." I was over halfway finished, and nothing bad had happened yet. I had to tell myself to keep it together, as I still had a very long way to go.
Shortly after the marathon mark, I passed a woman. She was hurting. Very badly. As I passed, she hung with me for about a quarter mile. Then she spoke. "You're looking really good. I was going to try to use you to pull me along, but I can't hang. Have a great race out there...pass lots of guys!" I told her to hang in there, taking it one step at a time, and was silently glad I didn't feel like she did (believe me, I have in the past).
I marched on, getting a bit excited when I realized I'd be seeing Michele, who would run miles 27-39 with me, very soon. I was passing people left and right. And then it hit me--I am trained for this. I remember telling Tim, "I may not have all the talent in the world, but nobody will out train me." It's true--I train extremely hard and consistently. My body was just doing what I've been training it for over the last four months. People around me, they were fading. I knew I wasn't going to fade anytime soon. It's an experience I've never had as a runner, not even early in a race: complete confidence. It may seem a bit cocky and naive to be thinking that at mile 27/50, but all the sudden I just had incredible faith in myself. I knew I could do it. The thought of "you are made for this" even crept into my mind. Now, don't misunderstand me as saying I'm so wonderful. I'm not. Lots of people do what I do, and a lot of them way faster. But I'm trying to convey the sense of peace and confidence that overcame me out there. I thought of Buddy. I thought of my kids, and of Tim--hoping he was feeling as strong as I was. I thought of all the times Jo and I ran at 4:45 in the morning, and how I always kept running for miles after dropping her off at her house. I thought about the countless times I ran between meetings, changed into dress clothes in the front seat of my car, peed (and more) in bushes, rolled my quads during phone conferences while also taking notes, and how, five years ago (when I first began running), I never would have dreamed any of this was possible.
Soon, I reached the historic Antietam battlefield, where Michele was waiting for me. She jumped in, and I was relieved to have someone to run with and distract me. I immediately asked her how Tim was. She said, "He doesn't look as good as you, but he's doing well!" She also updated me on others that I knew running, including that Schuey was hurting, and Michael was fading. "I want to pass Michael," I blurted out. We made it a goal.
She asked me if I needed anything, and had brought me some of my Clif Bars. I ate one, and explained to her my strategy...that I was running by HR. We would let the heart dictate the pace. She commented on how strong I looked. I was glad to hear this. I knew I felt good and strong, but I could have been delusional. She asked me how I was, and I told her I was doing well. Everyone had warned that the tow path was mind numbing. I didn't mind it one bit. I loved it. Maybe it's because I'm the type of person who will run 15 miles on the track, or 33 miles in downtown Bedford, but I loved the repetitiveness. It allowed me to get to that sweet spot that all runners crave during a race...the one at which you are running mindlessly. Your body is just doing it. As I ran with Michele, that's what was happening. My body was just running without any thought from me.
The wind picked up some more, but I still was not cold. Michele kept checking in with me, making sure the pace wasn't too quick, as we had sped up. "Nope, HR is right where it's supposed to be." We dipped under 9:00 pace, and my HR continued to be in the high 140s. As we passed aid stations, she filled my bottle for me, allowing me to drink my two cups of liquid and be on my way. We talked to pass the time, and we passed SO. MANY. PEOPLE. People who were walking, stretching, and clearly falling apart. I marched through them offering words of encouragement, but honestly trying not to look. I was doing my job.
Around 35 miles, I remember saying to Michele, "I can feel my quads now." Before, I had to think about it to feel them. Now, I was aware of them all the time. It wasn't bad, but I couldn't ignore it. She kept remarking at how good and strong I looked. Also around this time, I began to feel fatigue creeping in. Again, not bad...but it was there. I remarked to her that my last run of taper was 16 miles, and I had less than that to go now. She was incredibly encouraging, and she kept telling me I could and would do this.
Over the next few miles, I told her how glad I was that I hadn't cramped at all, and I wasn't having diarrhea. It was also at this point, though, I noticed some problems with my vision. This is not a new thing to me--at the end of long races, when I am pushing very, very hard, or at the end of a very long run, my vision, particularly in my right eye, can get cloudy. It's like I'm wearing dirty contacts through which I can't see clearly. I can usually clear this up by taking in more calories, so I decided to take a gel. I then, all the sudden, began to notice that I felt rather sleepy. Also not a new occurrence for me...the sensation that I just need a nap. I asked Michele if she had any gels with caffeine. She did. I took one, hoping it would clear up the vision and the sleepiness.
We reached the aid station known as "The 38 Special." It is located at 38.7 miles, and is known for its buffet-like quality of all types of snacks. Kevin was there to welcome us, and this was where Michele would hop off. She filled my water bottle, and I headed up the table to drink. I downed two cups of water, grabbed some gummy bears, and was off. For the first time, it was very difficult to begin running again. That short time spent at the aid station made my quads seize up, and my back contract. I was only 12ish miles from the end, so that kind of thing was expected. Michele and Kevin rooted me on, and I headed out for the last four miles on the towpath.
I was still running 9:04-9:10 minute pace consistently, my HR not going beyond 150. Just do your job, Wendy. Do your job. I continued to stream past people, most of them men. I tried to keep track of how many, but could no longer count. Two men tried to go with me as I passed, but both gave up, one yelling, "You go, girl! Go get it!" and clapping wildly. I love ultra runners. Unfortunately, my vision was getting worse. I knew it couldn't be totally due to dehydration, as I was still peeing a ton (and not cramping). I also had been eating. But my eyes just got cloudier and cloudier. I tried to blink it away, to no avail.
At 40, pain began to really set in. It's funny, it doesn't ever really happen gradually. My quads developed a deep, searing ache. Every foot strike felt like someone was beating them with a hammer. Perfect timing, though--I had said I didn't want to be in suffer mode until the last 10. And here it was starting. Despite the pain setting in, I was holding pace, though my mind was not staying quite as sharp and focused. It was at the 40 mile aid station that I realized my watch and the course markings did not match--my watch said I was almost at 41 miles, not 40. Garmins are not perfect, and I had gone off trail many times for the bathroom, and I'm certain I wasn't running all tangents. But I frantically tried to calculate, given the error on my watch, if I was still safe for my goal. I couldn't do it. When I say I couldn't do it, I truly mean it. I could not do the multiplication and addition. I was trying to multiple 10 miles by 9.5, then convert hours to minutes, etc. It wasn't happening. I abandoned even trying, and just kept running.
I ran by myself the last two miles on the path, and I remember thinking I was really ready for this race to be over. I wasn't swearing off running yet, but I was over it. My quads were getting more painful, I couldn't see very well, and the fatigue was coming on stronger. Just then, a short man showed up in my view. I ran by him, about to pass. To my surprise, he stayed with me. I didn't utter a word, as I couldn't be bothered at this point. "Almost to the road," he said. I didn't want to seem rude (evidence that I wasn't totally burying myself yet), and I said, "Yeah. Is it hilly?" I knew it was, I just couldn't think of anything else to say. "The first hill, you should hike it. It is very steep. But the rest? You look good enough to run them all." Then he fell back, and I finished the last mile on the path by myself. I saw the dam, an indicator that the path section was over, and made the right turn for the road.
The Road: Miles 42.7-50.5 "Keep it together."
I reached the road, close to full-on suffer mode. The pain was growing exponentially. But pain I can handle. I can (and have) run through just about anything. Pain does not scare me a bit. I can take more and more and more of it. Fatigue, though, does scare me. My fatigue, while growing, was still manageable at this point, though. I made an immediate left turn and saw the steep hill about which I'd been warned. I began to hike it quickly, passing two men. None of us talked. We couldn't. Side note--there was a man at the base of this hill, at the end of his driveway, giving away chicken noodle soup. He also had a big, white dog with him. Made me think of Buddy. I took no soup, and halfway wondered if the whole driveway scene was a figment of my exhausted imagination.
At the top of the hill, I began to run again, and was hit with a wall of wind. Right in my face. Though I still was not cold, this was not pleasant. I looked ahead, down the road. My vision was worsening, but I'll never forget what I saw. A long, long, LONG and winding road, full of hills, with little specks on it. The specks were people--other runners--who were on their way to the finish 8+ miles away. Most looked like zombies, just like in the Walking Dead. I felt sorry for myself for a split second, knowing this was going to be ugly, but promptly said (out loud): "Keep it together. That's all you have to do." Keep moving, keep running, and you will get there.
I passed a sign that read "8 miles to finish." My watch said I was only 7 miles from the finish. This angered me. I ran, dropping my pace into the mid-8's. I let my HR drift up into the mid 150s. Then, there were cars. yes, CARS. Though cones were up on the course, the road was not closed, and cars were coming at me. This is the one complaint I have about the organization of this race. It is terribly dangerous. MANY runners were weaving due to being exhausted, dehydrated, etc....with cars coming at us over the top of huge hills. I was in no mood to deal with cars.
I came to another sign that said, "7 miles to go." Oh, great, they are counting down the miles for us. This angered me also. Why? No idea. My pace was still holding in the mid- to upper-8s, but I was beginning to lose it a bit mentally. I kept telling myself to pull out all my tricks...all the tricks I use to get through the end of races. I found myself thinking, "Amelia can run 7 miles." For a few minutes, I pretended she was running with me. But then it hit me that she probably couldn't run 7 miles under a 9 minute pace. And, in my state of cognitive failure, I determined that I was not allowed to imagine her with me if it weren't actually possible for her to complete the task. Okay, I told myself, when you get to 6 miles to go, you get to choose 6 people with whom to run each of the last six miles with you. From 7 miles to go, to 6 miles to go, my internal dialogue went something like this...all the while running goal pace, not slowing down a bit:
-Six people. Dad, Jo, Amelia, Tim..no, not Tim, because he's already up there. Wes, Scott. How many is that? I don't know. I can't count.
-Look at those people walking. Can you imagine how good it would feel to stop and walk right now. Your pace is slipping anyway. No, it's not. I'm speeding up. Keep it together, Wendy. COME. ON.
-I have to pass all these people, and I know that costs extra energy. I don't want to pass anyone else.
-These people in these houses have no idea the personal hell I am in right now.
-I need help. Someone help me.
-Why do I do this?
-I think my quads are ruptured.
-It's fine, okay. You can go by YOUR watch. Doesn't matter that it's not with their mile markers. Go by your watch.
-Run to the 6 to go sign, then decide what to do next.
-Run the hills because the hell will end sooner.
-This is an exceptional amount of pain.
-I cannot see. I may be hit by a car.
-I want my mom.
-Buddy would want me to keep going. Actually, Buddy would be fine with whatever I did.
-God, carry me through.
-The fatigue is mounting. Push it back, push it back. Make yourself hurt more.
-Get there, get there, get there.
Those are just a few examples, but they are all real. I remember them. I got to the six miles to go sign, and could no longer handle the energy it would take to imagine running with my six people. The pain was excruciating, but I could take more. I pushed harder and harder. I felt like my legs muscles, particularly quads, were being peeled off of my femurs. The fatigue began to overwhelm me. More internal dialogue:
-Go, go, go, one step, then another, then another.
-I seriously cannot see.
-Just a daily run left.
-Imagine you're running to Jo's house (my mind was incapable of conjuring the image, though).
-Here you are, suffer fest has begun. Embrace this.
-Keep. It. Together.
Everyone around me was dying. I can't explain the things I saw. I saw a man on hands and knees in the middle of the road. I saw people slouched forward. I saw a man crying. I wanted to join them...to throw up the white flag and let the overwhelming fatigue win. The bargaining began.
-Make it to five to go, just do that, then you can stop.
-Run for two more minutes, then re-evaluate.
It may sound bleak, but things were actually going really well. I was maintaining pace and even speeding up, and though I was in a great amount of agony and growing a bit confused, I knew deep inside that I could maintain this for another five miles. I'd done it before. If someone were to throw you immediately into feeling what I was feeling at that moment? Odds are you would think you're about to die. But if you do long distance races, you know that's not true. It's more sustainable than you could imagine.
I saw the 5 miles to go sign, and felt another pang of rage at it (Why? Don't know). And then, there was Michael. I had told Michele long ago that I wanted to pass him. There he was, stammering. I said his name. He looked at me, and I saw the suffering all over him. I'm sure he saw it on me, too, but he didn't recognize me. "It's Wendy," I managed. "Oh. Oh." "Just get there," I told him. "Yeah, run/walk," he said quietly. "That will work, just keep going," I said. I got no enjoyment out of passing him. The only thing that would bring me enjoyment at this point would be to completely cease running. Suddenly, I had to pee. It began to happen before I even stopped....I quickly tried to get behind a telephone pole and finish the job. People saw me, but no one even blinked.
When I resumed running, I was convinced both femurs were broken. It. Hurt. So. Much. My pace had slipped with the pee stop, and I was having a horrible time getting going again. Heart rate was fine...under 150. I kept telling myself to push the HR up, get it going now. I couldn't. I couldn't make myself hurt enough to get my HR wildly high. This had never happened to me.
As I neared the four miles to go sign, I had a flurry of thoughts...."This is how long Amelia's Thanksgiving Day race is," "What is four miles from my house?" "This wind is killing me," "I want to go home." Then, I decided I'd try to do math again. I still could not. I said to myself, "Okay, four miles to go...I'm at such and such time, so if I run my miles at 9:30 pace, that...what? Forget it." I COULD NOT DO IT.
It doesn't matter anyway, I told myself. Just run as hard as you can. The pain was IMMENSE. But still, deep inside that failing mind of mine, I knew I could take more. I pushed as hard as I could, bombing the downhills (that hurt so much I screamed), and working the uphills. I pumped my arms. My HR did not rise. This was maddening. I wanted to be FULL OUT at this point. Apparently, my cardiovascular system was better prepared than my musculoskeletal system...my heart could take much more, but my legs were DONE.
I kept checking my pace. Still there, still hanging on. 3 miles to go. I wanted to kick the sign, but had no energy (or eyesight) to do so. Three. Just three. But three is a REALLY long way when you are coasting on fumes. From 3 to 2 miles to go, it got pretty bad. Internal dialogue:
-I can't, I can't. Except I can, I can, and I have to.
-Legs can't take much more.
-You have enough, there's enough to finish.
-You run in Buddha.
-I want to stop, I HATE THIS.
-Agony. It's agony.
-I bet Tim is done.
-Buddy. Buddy. Buddy.
-Amelia. Rowan. I want them here. Why didn't we bring them?
-Something, something to motivate me. Please, God, anything.
-Close your eyes, embrace it.
I did embrace it, and reminded myself that, as soon as I crossed the line, I would forget what all this feels like. It's true--I can't even begin to reproduce it right now. The wind battled against me, and I tried to look ahead for some sign of the finish line. This was in vain, as I knew I wouldn't see it yet. All I saw was more road and more zombies. I wanted to cry. I committed to running three more minutes, and nothing more. That time passed, and I told myself I'd run another three minutes. Then I got sick of focusing on time, and said I'd run another .20 miles (odd number, no idea why I chose it).
-Where is the 2 sign? WHERE IS THE 2 SIGN???
-2 miles is still a very long way.
-I paid $200 to do this.
-I'm not running for a very long time.
FINALLY, the 2 miles to go sign. And then I reminded myself that I had permission (from myself?) to go by MY watch, which said I only had just over a mile to go. Trying to describe the pain in my quads would be an exercise in futility. It hurt so much that my legs no longer felt like they were a part of my body. Whatever, that won't stop me. But the overwhelming muscle fatigue...that's what I was fighting. Those muscle fibers simply didn't have much more to offer. I had nearly burned them up. But I knew they could go 2 more miles.
I was still not slowing down, but my heart rate was falling. FALLING. This drove me insane. Try as I might, I couldn't turn my legs over fast enough to get it up there. I saw a big hill in front of me, and I enjoyed the fact that it would get my heart rate up...which is very stupid, considering that it was going to make me work harder on legs that had already proved they couldn't. But I wasn't thinking clearly. I passed three men on this hill, one of whom cheered for me like a wild man. I couldn't show him any gratitude. Wish I could now. I'm sure he understands.
As I neared the top of the hill, I saw an aid station--the last aid station. All I remember is they had a fake palm tree there (and that I could actually see it). As I was about a quarter mile from the station, I saw someone--someone who looked to be FEMALE--pop out of a porta potty there. MOTIVATION! GO! I couldn't go any faster, but this would at least help me to not slow down. As I passed the station, the volunteers whooped and hollered and made me feel like a rock star. A rock star with failing cognitive capacity, pee running down her leg, and drool on her chin, but a rock start nonetheless. One looked at me and said, "Go get her! She's dying!"
I might have been almost blind, but I know fresh meat when I see it. She WAS dying. I was, too, but she was dying way, way worse. I had 1.5 miles to make up about a quarter mile on her. I could not physically go any faster (I tried, I swear), so I just hoped she would slow down. She did. She was coming back. I saw her leaning to the side, her pony tail whipping in the wind. I grunted and growled, needing to let out some of the pent up pain I was feeling.
The course became desolate. It was me, orange cones, the girl up ahead, and the wind. I wanted human contact. I began to care less about passing her, and more about wanting to be with her. It's so odd what pushing yourself like this does to your mind. I kept telling myself to just get up there with her. It would be easier to run the last mile with someone. I saw the "1 mile to go" sign, and thought to myself, "That means I'm actually done, because I'm going by MY WATCH." But I kept running anyway.
I tried to put on a surge. It just wasn't there. I was holding pace, not slipping a bit, but there was no surge to be had. My HR was 144. I was able to do the 1 mile to go math. I knew that all I had to do was run a 10 minute mile, and I'd meet my goal. But it wasn't in the bag yet. One mile is a looooooooong way when you're in that shape. Hold it together, Wendy. HOLD IT TOGETHER.
I decided that I would divide the last mile in half. I would run half a mile or, as I began to picture it, two laps around the Parkview track. I would not think beyond that. My exhausted mind could not picture it. So I began to count my steps. That proved too difficult, so I just began to grunt. My vision was fading even more, and it felt like I was running in a tunnel. But I could see her up there. She was getting closer yet.
I neared an intersection where a policeman was directing traffic. I was so happy to see him...no idea why. As I approached, she turned and looked back at me. And she sped up a bit. I just kept hoping she'd die a little more, and maybe I could get another spot. Truth be told, I did not care at that point. I just wanted to be done.
The policeman said to me, "You're there, straight ahead." "WHAT?" "The finish line, it's straight ahead." "You mean there are no more turns?" "No, don't you see it? Right up there." I could not see it. But I decided to believe him. I closed my eyes and ran. A few seconds later, I opened my eyes and saw the faint red lights from the clock. Oh, thank you, God! There it is! Glanced at my watch. Pace still holding. Get it, get it. Don't let up, don't you DARE LET UP. I knew I couldn't catch the woman in front of me. Just then, I heard foot steps.
Wonderful. I'm going to be passed. To my surprise, it was the short man I had seen at the end of the path. He looked amazing, and he was turning it on. He raised his fist in the air, and shouted, "Victory! You're almost there!" I was moaning and grunting and giving it all I had to stay with him. Wasn't happening. I thought about what a humbling experience this was, and how everyone should have to do something like it just to foster humility. I saw the cemetery to my right, and knew that I had to be close. Then I heard it.
"Go, Wendy!" It was Sara Jane. I couldn't see her, but I could hear her!
I could barely see. I was not at all out of breath, and my HR began to fall immediately. Michele, Sara, and Kevin all congratulated me, telling me they knew how prepared I was and that I did so well. "Tim?" I managed to ask. "He finished in 8:07." I looked at my watch. I was barely over 8:19. Tim and I were only 12 minutes apart. They said he had had a good day, and that he was fine, waiting inside the school. Wow, I thought, I'm only 12 minutes behind TIM! I was so happy to see him in the school--he was surprised with how fast I finished (given his finishing time), and regretted he hadn't gotten out in time to see me finish. And I was 16th female! I had hoped to MAYBE crack the top 20. We sat down to eat, and I felt, for the first time all day, an abdominal cramp. I held it and kept it from going full-blown. I told them all about my race, and how I had passed Michael at 45. I told them he didn't look good, and that I was worried. My vision slowly returned.
Next thing I knew, in walked Michael! He finished only 6 minutes behind me. I'm telling you, based on how he looked at 45? That man BURIED himself the last five miles. He aptly ended up in the medical tent for IV fluids. Tim and I talked about how we can't imagine going twice that far for a 100 miler, but still planned to sign up for one anyway. We had a nice after party at Chris' house, and then went back to our hotel...and drove 10 hours home the next day.
|Runners, crew, and pacers!|
I'm sore, to be sure--stairs are laughable, as is sitting on the toilet, but I have felt WAY worse after a marathon. Though you might not guess it from all of my crazy internal dialogue on the road section, this race went PERFECTLY. Had I not had the wind in my face, I think I could have gone about a minute or two faster. But it was there (as it was for everyone else), and it went as well as it could have. Very, very rarely do we runners meet our A goals. Only one other time in my life, during my first marathon, have I ever actually surpassed my A goal. And to do it on only my second 50 miler, on what proved to be a very difficult course? I was stoked. And proud.
During my training cycle, I often get people saying things (very innocently) like: "Don't you think you're running too much?" "I have a friend who only runs xx miles a week and still runs ultras." At the end of that race, it was clear to me: I know what I'm doing. I know how to train myself for a 50 mile race. Now, things happen during races...and all the best training in the world can go right down the drain. But that day, it all came together, and I was so proud of how I had prepared myself. I seem to have figured out my fluid and nutrition (as in, I need a lot of the former and not so much of the latter), and that I battled the last few miles without falling off pace. My average heart rate for the entire rate was 147, two beats below my low heart rate threshold.
Clearly, I need more muscle endurance in my quads. I will do some strength training to remedy that, so that I actually CAN push my heart rate up to the red line during the last few miles. Luckily, I have a personal trainer (Sam) who is more than happy to do that for me. I will not run for a week, then slowly get back into things.
Next up? Yep, a 100.
BIG, BIG thanks to Sara Jane, Michele, Kevin, et al. for their assistance during this race...made a world of difference!!