Note: Originally posted as a note on facebook.
Much delayed but here it is. Tried to keep it from getting too long, but a lot can happen in 50 miles.
Sometime in late 2009, after running several 50k’s and never being seriously challenged, I decided it was time to step up and run a “real” trail ultramarathon. I was immediately drawn to the JFK 50 mile and really didn’t even consider any other 50 milers. Where better to see how I stack up against the best ultra guys than at the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the country?
While the early entry list contained the names of many good runners, there were no superstars. I was not surprised though to see the final entry list had added Michael Wardian and Mike Arnstein. In addition to being proven ultra runners, both men had gone 5:50 at JFK in prior years and, in my mind, were favorites to win. Wardian was fresh off a bronze medal finish at the 100km World Championships in Gibraltar just 13 days before. Admittedly, it was unlikely that his legs would be very fresh with such little time to recover, but this is Wardian we’re talking about here. The guy races a lot, and still goes fast, so I quickly dismissed any more thoughts of winning the race.
Race morning dawned with a perfectly cloudless sky and temperatures in the mid 30s with the forecast calling for upper 50s in the afternoon. The plan was simple, yet complicated. Be patient, run my own race, but also put myself in a position to compete. As the starting gun went off, I immediately located Wardian and Arnstein. The pace felt ridiculously easy, but in a 50-miler, it must feel easy for a long time. I didn’t think I had any business being in front of either of these guys, so I just stayed glued to their backsides as we made the initial road climb up to the Appalachian Trail. According to the chip timing mats, I was in 22nd place as we left the road and hit the trail.
The first section of trail is relatively flat and not very technical, but the pace of Wardian and Arnstein remained mild. Eager to prove myself as a good trail runner and looking to put a little time cushion in between me and the road guys – who I knew would roll up quickly on the flat tow path section – I began pushing the pace a bit on the trails. I pulled away from Wardian and Arnstein and caught up to a couple guys from Alabama. I had met Owen Bradley before, but I had never met Dane Mitchell. Like myself, Dane isn’t technically an Alabama guy anymore since he recently moved to Vermont. It was nice to run with a couple guys who shared a common link, even if I really didn’t know them all that well.
The trail transitioned to a paved bike path as the course climbed to its maximum elevation at about the 6 mile mark. I crested the mountain with a group of 5 or so and the pavement turned back to trail. I had neglected to use the restroom just before the start of the race due to the lines at the portable toilets, so I pulled to the side of the trail to empty my bladder. It was kind of weird to me because I’ve never had to stop during a race to use the restroom. I thought to myself, this is definitely a different type of race than I’m used to running. Feeling much lighter, I was ready to roll now and quickly caught back up to the group I had been running with. The trail suddenly turned technical with an abundance of rocks and ankle twisting gaps in between. I tried my best to float over the rocks and maintain pace without over expending energy. I passed Owen and Dane in this section. Dane would tell me after the race that he never remembered seeing me pass him. It was probably because he was too busy trying not to roll ankle that he didn’t notice me slide past. He finished 4th overall and was also a first time 50 mile runner like the three guys that finished in front of him.
I soon arrived at the 9.3 mile aid station. My dad was crewing for me for the first time and he had the deer in the headlights look when I popped off the trail into the aid station. Apparently he underestimated my level of urgency at mile 9 of 50. I had told him I should be patient and relaxed at this point, but knowing I was in front of Wardian and Arnstein, I didn’t want to hang around too long. My dad refilled my bottle with GU Brew and gave me another GU Roctane and S!Cap. The next section of Appalachian Trail was rolling and somewhat technical. I tried to press the pace just little but was very cautious on the ascents in attempt not to hit my redline too early. I was mostly running alone at this point. I had plenty of company though as I was passing loads of 5AM starters. These folks were completely awesome. They gave plenty of room for me to pass and shouted words of encouragement. I finally reached the Weverton Cliffs where the trail rapidly descends a series of switchbacks down to the tow path. It was much steeper and more technical than I was expecting. So much so that you really couldn’t use the descent to pick up the pace. At one point I nearly busted as I tried to pivot around a switchback. I slipped on some leaves and did a complete 360 degree pirouette, but I managed to maintain balance and not go down. I hope the 5AM starters I had just passed got a kick out of my near disastrous dance move.
I refueled again at 15 miles and headed for the tow path. At the 15.5 mile time check I was right at 2 hours and now in 5th place. I didn’t know it at the time but I had also put almost 8 minutes on Wardian. As I began running alone on the tow path, I made a very deliberate decision to take a few miles and really relax. I wanted to settle down and make sure I hadn’t pushed too hard on the trail before hitting my goal pace. After a few miles in the 6:50s according to GPS, I felt like I was in good shape so I started easing the pace down a little more. The next 12 miles slipped by uneventfully as I tried to take in some of the scenery and just enjoy myself. It wasn’t long though before I slipped back into my trance-like race focus where all thoughts and senses are concentrated on the task at hand.
I saw my dad again at mile 27 and stocked up again on my nutrition. About this time, I started seeing Wardian’s handler and knew he was closing fast. At mile 29 I turned around and saw him coming. I pushed the pace into the 6:20s in an effort to delay the inevitable. He caught me just before 30 miles. We exchanged small talk for a little as the pace increased further. I encouraged him to go get the course record thinking he was about to drop me, but he didn’t pull away. My Garmin beeped and I looked down to see it report a 6:12 mile. Oops. But I was running with Michael Wardian, and I wasn’t feeling that bad, so I couldn’t just stop. I wanted to compete. I guess realizing that I wasn’t going to drop off, Wardian then encouraged me to go on ahead and leave him. I laughed and told him I had no business running that pace, so we both backed off some. I was shocked though as he continued to fade and I was able to keep rolling. Next thing I knew places 2, 3, and 4 came into view in the distance all running together and I was gaining fast. My momentum just snowballed and I passed them all at once around mile 34 with little trouble. I was on cloud nine.
Then reality hit. Looking back, I had just run a 6 mile section at 6:21 pace. Way too fast. At the same time I realized my water bottle was empty. I wasn’t due to see my dad until mile 38. No worries, I’d just fill up at the next aid station which was just up the trail. As I rolled into the aid station I asked for Gatorade. But the aid station workers just looked at me like and alien. Either they didn’t have any Gatorade or didn’t realize that any electrolyte beverage would suffice at this point. I nearly just ran on by in frustration, but I turned around to have someone half fill my bottle with water from two tiny Styrofoam cups. I was not happy. I thought this was the biggest and oldest ultra in the US? How were the aid stations so clueless? To make matters worse, the park service moved the aid station where my dad was supposed to be at mile 38 to mile 39. My legs were starting to cramp and I desperately needed some electrolytes. This was the lowest point for me in the race.
I finally made it to mile 39 and was able to refill my bottle and take a salt tab. I was only 5 minutes behind the leader, and he was supposedly dying, but so was I at this point. I left the tow path at 4:55 splitting 2:55 for the tow path section which is almost an exact marathon. I was still hurting and even had to walk for a brief stint as the road climbs away from the two path. I just tried to keep moving forward though. Gradually, the electrolytes began reaching my muscles and I began feeling better. I had another aid station mishap in this section when I rolled into the aid station and was trying to refill my bottle and no one even realized I was there. The first Gatorade cooler I ran up to was completely empty. I then asked for Gatorade and was given Mtn Dew. Fortunately, I was able to meet my dad and get my own aid again at 46 miles. I heard the leader was still looking rough, but he was still 3 minutes ahead and I still couldn’t see him. At some point between 2 and 3 miles to go, he finally came into view in the distance but I knew I couldn’t catch him. I pulled to within nearly a minute, but just ran out of miles. I was ready to quit at mile 38, but would have given anything for another 2 miles at the end. So, 2nd place overall in 5:53:09 (7:04 pace). 8th fastest time in the 48 year history of the race.
I might have had a chance to pull it off if it weren’t for my 6:21 pace 6 mile section and the aid station snafu around mile 34. Live and learn. I can’t be disappointed though. It was a great race and I exceeded my own expectations. Now I have to figure out where to go from here. Recovery has gone great so far. I have already turned down my automatic entry into Western States – I’m just not ready to do that yet, but I am thinking about the US 100km champs. Stay tuned… What do you think I can do at Rocket City this weekend though?