Inspired by the amazing athlete Scott Jurek, who ran the entirety of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine this spring, I challenged myself to do something big and outside of my comfort zone. This weekend, I did it. I ran the JFK 50--my first race of this magnitude--and you don't run 50 miles without some serious reflection. Here are my six big takeaways...
1. Want to do something big? Make a plan to get there, and be consistent in following it.
Over the last few months, I prioritized this race and the training for it. I was consistent--even as I dealt with an injury that slowed me down significantly for 3 weeks. I completed long run after long run, I practiced runs with my dorky (but tremendously comfortable and efficient) running vest, and I fueled my runs with the foods I knew I'd eat in the event. I cooked and ate as healthfully as I could. I read about the course and grilled people who've run it before for advice. I visualized myself running the race: Nice and slow on the first 15-16 miles on the rocky Appalachian Trail; holding a steady and consistent pace on the flat C&O Canal path for 26-ish miles, walking through every aid station; finishing the final 9 miles on the rolling roads with as much consistency as possible. I had a plan to train and a plan for the event.
2. Expect the unexpected.
In my first 50K this spring, I learned that there is much truth to the adage "the best laid plans of mice and men are often led astray," and shocker: There were plenty of unplanned-for surprises on this course. The biggest surprise of all: I had no idea how much walking I would have to do! I studied the elevation map, but the sheer length and steepness of those hills surprised me. When the entire mob of runners was walking at mile 3, I fell right in step--it was a waste of energy to race up those hills...or the next hilly road that came after a short bit on the trail...or the hills on the rocky trail itself...or the unbelievably steep hilly road that showed up like an unwelcome smell at mile 41.
Another surprise: Keeping my pace up on the flat boring miles 15 through 41 on the C&O Canal was far harder than I anticipated. Even with slow pacing on the trail beforehand, I arrived at the flat path with nearly 16 miles on my legs, and despite my plan, my running pace slowed and my walk breaks extended just a few seconds longer with each aid station.
There were many more little surprises along the way: At mile 2, a big dude came huffing and puffing from behind and clomped down on my heel with his clumsy giant Hoka-cobbled hoof,* leaving my Achilles scraped and my shoe on the road as I yanked my foot up and away. Much later at mile 34, my watch--my security blanket--ran out of juice, leaving me with no outlet to channel my neuroses. How would I monitor my pace? How would I count off the minutes of walking I had planned at aid stations? And when I was still on the road at sundown with more than 5 miles left to run down a pitch black road, I'm glad I was too tired to be upset I forgot my headlamp. With a loooooooong day like this, rolling with the punches is a must. It's something I'm learning to be better about in my non-running life, too.
3. You do you.
Everyone who has run this race warned me: "The trails are challenging--don't fall and it's a success!" If you've run with me for more than a couple of miles, especially on a trail, you know that I have a habit of falling. As I hit the Appalachian Trail, I felt pressure to keep up with the runner ahead of me or be trampled by the runners behind. About a half dozen times, I heard guys loudly chatting behind me, and then the distinct sound of scrambling that precedes a fall, followed by the "oooomph!" of the wind being knocked out of the falling runner. Once a runner biffs it, it's my experience that the likelihood of that runner or someone around them falling increases several fold.
I took on the mantra "you do you." For me, that meant intense internal focus without letting other runners rattle me. It meant running my own pace--if someone needs to pass, they'll let me know. If I need to pass someone, I'll do it with extreme care. The trail took us waaaaaay up, then brought us down in a series of dramatic switchbacks--dropping about a thousand feet over half a mile--the steepness of which, despite plenty of warning, surprised me. Sidling at a snail's pace over rocks, the word "race" completely disappeared from my mind as I directed my focus to the trail and tried not to imagine myself flying over the edge head over heals like Homer Simpson in the Springfield Gorge. For someone who can trip while crossing a smoothly paved street, amazingly I made it through the trail segment with only a couple small stumbles, a great reminder of what I can accomplish when I'm super-focused.
3. Giving up is easy.
Fatigue comes on hard and heavy and in multiple waves in an event like this. And it doesn't hit like a punch in the face; it is gentle and seductive. It encourages you to walk more, to stop at the aid stations and hang out, to pull over and stretch for a while. It helps you do the math--how much walking can you get away with and still make it to the next cut-off? This race was not about tackling 50 miles, it was about challenging my own boundaries--more mental than physical--and silencing the voice that says, Hey--relax! You don't have to do this! But there were so many reasons that I wanted to run this race, and so many reasons to train for it for months. I reminded myself of this several times over.
4. Seek out and accept help, and be grateful for it.
Some of the nicest humans on the planet volunteer for aid stations in long races. Young and old volunteers greeted me cheerily, happily refilled my water bottle and asked over and over again if they could help in any way. Even with the blaring 80's music, aid stations re-affirm my belief in humanity, and finishing the race would have been impossible without them (not to mention the sweet, sweet, caffeinated soda they offered. Running an event over 4 hours is about the only time it is reasonable to drink soda!). Help also came from fellow runners, giving shoutout’s as we played leapfrog throughout the race. We engaged in the most meaningless meaningful small talk about how hungry or unhungry we were, how many of these races we’d run before, and who was waiting for us at the finish. We joked about the shameful reflective orange vests volunteers placed on us to keep us safe as the sun set. (Man, those were shamefully orange.)
I also know there's no way I would have made it to the starting line if I hadn't asked for help during this tough training season. After days and days of denial and pain and insistence that I could manage things on my own, I sheepishly went in to see my physical therapist (the amazing Brett) and acupuncturist (the gifted Heather Johnstone), and now my only regret is not asking for help sooner.
5. Don't focus on the giant goal--break it into bite-sized chunks.
I advise my clients with weight loss goals not to focus on 10 or 20 or 80 pounds they have to lose, but instead to just focus on one step they can take now to advance toward their goal, like eating vegetables with dinner every night this week. Small, measurable, achievable goals are much easier to take on without being overwhelmed by the enormity of the big goal. I took my own advice in this event: If I let myself linger on the thought that I had 40, 30, 20 miles more to run, it felt overwhelming. But if I focused on getting to the next aid station, or taking 200 steps, or running to the next telephone pole, it was manageable and un-scary. For 10 hours and 48 minutes, I set mini goals and grew more confident as I picked each one off.
6. Achieving a goal in the face of big obstacles is all the sweeter.
There is no feeling like setting a goal, working hard toward it and achieving it. There were weeks during my training where I was in a lot of pain and thought I'd never heal in time. Other times a warm bed and snuggly puppy made it nearly impossible to get up to complete my morning training run. My busy schedule, the earlier sunset, my attempts at a social life, or just plain exhaustion were all obstacles to my training. But re-setting my expectations to be realistic in the face of challenges, and staying consistent paid off.
Thanks to all the kind messages of support for me and for John (aka Coach John of Charm City Run Timonium), who finished his 50-miler HOURS before me, but is walking equally Frankenstein-like in the aftermath.
* For the uninitiated, this is a Hoka brand shoe. I cannot understand how the trend swung from barefoot running just a couple of years ago to this insane, maxiumum cushioning today.