Ultra Partners In Crime

Even after witnessing the wild weather which occurred during JFK 50 last year, the seed was planted about possibly running an ultra. Last December, I was out at a winery celebrating a friend’s birthday when the topic arose (obviously alcohol-induced). At this point, it still sounded crazy and I still wasn’t quite sure I’d really consider entering.

Fast forward to the spring. Through several group runs and races, Sara and I became great friends (as did our families). Ads for JFK kept popping up on social media. Mario signed up for his 2nd, then Jeremy for his 3rd. Would I really try to run 50 miles? So far, I had only completed 1 marathon. Was I really considering doing almost double? Unsure how the conversation came about, all I remember is a message between Sara and me: “I’ll do it if you do it” (and no, this time the conversation was not fueled with any wine). That night, we filled out the form and hit submit. We were in.

Over the next few months, I think we both bobbled between excitement and “what the hell did we sign up for?”. Knowing we would have each other to run with I think made the task seem a little less overwhelming. Over the summer, I racked up miles training for my marathon and Sara worked on building a base as well. Now, if you read my post on crewing Yeti, you’ll know Sara joined Josh for 43 miles! Unsure how many she ran vs walked, but she still did 43 miles. Amazing. After Yeti, I knew she would have no problem with JFK.

Once Yeti was over, we started to look towards our race. We planned to head up to the course and tackle the trail portion one Saturday morning. I emailed the race director with a few questions and looked up the maps since we had never been to the area before. From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, we were already a bit discombobulated, haha! Out of the car and we weren’t sure where the trail started – sheesh, what are we in for? We asked another runner in the lot and felt better after he said he had no idea since it was his first time there as well. Blind leading the blind is not a great way to start. Another duo of runners were gearing up and thankfully they pointed us in the right direction. And, off we went!

The two of us were having so much fun, running through the trails, chattering away. We came to a road, crossed and kept going up the asphalt. We continued up this looooong incline forever, switching off between walking and running until we reached the top. And came to a dead end. Crud, what now? I remembered reading a post about a runner who asked where to go at the top, thankfully had cell service and was able to pull up the information on my phone. We circumvented the tower and started back on the trail….until we came to an intersection. Now, the two of us are no girl scouts, so we had to make a decision of which way to go. I again tried to use my phone and we headed to the left. Chattering away again as we ran through the woods – we kept saying, this is so much fun! And then, we ran into the other runners….coming toward us from the opposite direction. Navigators, we are not. So, we turned around and followed them back the way we just came and settled back into our pace. Happy to say, the rest of the run was great! We ended up with 15 great miles and headed to refuel at Panera.

Our first trail adventure…

We decided to head back out again, this time adding on more miles on the C&O. One of our goals was to run the trail correctly this time. Once again, we parked in the lot and we started off to the trail…or so we thought. Somehow we ended up in tent city! Laughing at our awful orienteering skills (Sara – unsure if we are cut out for Barkley!), we quickly found the trail and were underway. When we crossed the road this time, we found the trail we missed on the last run (woohoo!). The trail became fairly rocky and we ended up speedwalking much of the first couple miles. About halfway through, Sara tripped and came up with minor scrapes but that girl kept on trucking! So glad Sara is an easy person to be around; always positive, never panics and is just as determined as I am.

Once we finished the trail and came to the Weverton lot, we met John who was going to run on the C&O with us. We changed out of our trail shoes, fueled, and set off again with John this time. The sun was out and it was a little unseasonably warm for late October. We kept hydrated and ran onto the C&O through Harper’s Ferry. What should be a beautiful running route, especially during the fall, ends up being a tad boring after the miles of trail. We realized on this part of our run when coming to a complete stop; you shouldn’t try to go back to running right away. Definitely need to ease in; walk a bit before taking off. We ended up doing a marathon and John did 12. Another great training run.

Marathon training run

We hit the trail one more time this past weekend and we are glad we did. Since our last run, many more leaves had fallen off the trees which make the trail a little more challenging. We are happy to share with you this time, we did not get lost at all.  About halfway through, I was running along chatting and then WHAM! I was flat on my face. Brushed myself off and we continued on; no injuries. A few more miles and our last training run was finished. Almost 3 hours and 13.5 miles later, we came out of the trail and began walking towards the car as if we had just jogged a mile.

As we headed back to pick up my car at the start, we decided to check out where the race begins and the course leading up to the trail. As we drove down the street, we once again were reminded of the intensity of this race. The road leading to the Appalachian Trail is one long giant hill! Unsure if was a good or bad idea to go see what the start has in store for us. Oh, what an adventure this will be.

Now it is race week. Did we get in enough long runs; enough miles? Not as many as I would have liked to, but there are only so many hours in the day. I know we will finish – even if we are crawling or Sara carries me on her back. We are still excited and still wondering, “what the heck did I sign up for?”. 50 miles is FAR!

Tune in next week for my race recap – hopefully I’ll be able to type after 50 miles!

 

 

Update: did you read yesterday’s post about fear? After publishing, I worked with 2 clients who both decided to move forward, not be frozen by fear and go after their goals! Exciting!

Frozen by Fear

Each week, someone will chat with me about goals they’d like to achieve whether related to weight loss, running/fitness, career or personal goals. Many times, I can sense a hesitancy; something holding them back from proceeding with 100% effort. The end result they are looking to achieve would definitely make them happier, more fulfilled; yet fully committing to the journey creates an uncomfortable feeling….fear.

Fear of change. Fear of feeling like a disappointment. Fear of failing. Fear of the unknown.

Fear can be found creeping in every area of our lives – careers, families, relationships, extracurricular activities, our health, attitudes towards ourselves and others, etc. Sometimes due to our fears, we become slaves to habits, patterns and actions which do not serve us and may actually hurt us.

The fuzzy gray zone of the unknown stops many people in their tracks – should I stay in the less than ideal, somewhat comfortable area I know so well? Or should I push my boundaries, struggle a bit, be uncomfortable to hopefully reap big rewards?

There are no guarantees. We can plan our hearts out, work hard every day, do everything we can to succeed and still, we can end up with a different result than we anticipated.

Is your fear stopping you from living your life to its full potential? One day will you look back and think, “What might have I achieved if I didn’t let fear get in the way?”

What can you do? Feel the fear and do it any way. Yes, you will have to decide whether the struggle will be worth the possible prize waiting for you on the other side of fear.

Whether or not we believe we are in control of our destiny, we are certainly in control of our choices. Don’t let fear paralyze your actions. After all, YOLO!

How does this relate to me right now? I definitely have fear approaching this 50 miler. Yes, racing is not life-altering, but it’s the current fear I am experiencing. I have trained and trained for months. Run hundreds of miles, made a plan, studied the course and yet, I may fail. Running 50 miles is going to hurt. My brain is going to fight me; want me to give up. I fear giving in. I fear feeling extreme discomfort.

Outside of the upcoming race, I also have fear of returning to the old me. I feel I need to keep moving forward; always looking for the next goal to stay focused. I fear injury and needing recovery time. I fear letting others down. Like you, I have many fears. Some I am attacking full speed and others I am still tip toeing around; dipping my little toe in the dark, unchartered waters. If I don’t try, how will I know what is possible?

Once again, I encourage you to do what makes you happy – whatever that is. If needed, take a step back to see the big picture. Maybe write down goals you’d like to accomplish – where do you want to see yourself a year from now? 5 years from now? How can you get there? Who can help you?

Whatever the goal is, I want you to buckle up, brace yourself and take the first step. Don’t let fear decide your future or kill your dreams. Remember, fear is only temporary – regret is forever.  Be brave heading towards the unknown. You may reach the other side and be surprised by what awaits you.

And if you fail, at least you tried – you probably learned something about yourself along the way. Go try again.

 

An Evening Among Those Who Dare To Go The Distance

Last week, I shared a little introduction to ultramarathons and also the perspective of crewing an ultra.

Now, we will chat a little about one of the more extreme ultras – the Barkley marathons.

Nicknamed “The Race That Eats Its Young”, the Barkley is a 100+ mile race through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Barkley is a little bit of an enigma wrapped into a puzzle interwoven into one wild race. Everything from how to apply for entry, when the race will begin, and what the course will be is held under lock and key by Lazarus Lake, the race director. Since 1986, many runners have tried to complete Barkley, yet only 15 runners have finished within the 60 hour time limit. Over the winter, I watched this documentary of Barkley.

First thought, these people are insane. Second, eccentric Lazarus Lake was extremely entertaining. Third, yes, these people are definitely crazy. But yet, I couldn’t stop watching.

When race time rolled around this spring, I was intrigued to follow the runners (including NOVA runner Michael Wardian) attempt whatever the Barkley would entail for 2017. After 3 loops (which in the Barkley world is considered a “fun run”), only 2 runners remained – John Kelly (3rd Barkley attempt) and Gary Robbins (2nd Barkley attempt). I won’t spoil what happens…

Ethan Newberry, The Ginger Runner, followed and documented Gary Robbins during his 2016 and 2017 Barkley attempts. Once his project Where Dreams Go To Die was complete, Ethan & Gary went on a 15 city tour to share this emotional, powerful and inspirational journey. Lucky for me, one stop was in DC. A few of us decided we could go, I bought my ticket and quickly found out the event was sold out before anyone else could purchase. I hit up social media to find extra tickets and thanks to a retweet from Michael Wardian, we scored! On to DC!

Arriving at the theater, I found it quite interesting to look around and see who else was interested seeing a documentary about an ultra marathon. Definitely lots of bearded folks. Walking down into the theater, we ran into another local running friend Juan – didn’t know he was coming. We found seats, sat back with popcorn and beer and waited for the show to begin.
 

Amazing. Simply amazing. Watching the planning which goes into an ultra – the training, deciding and gathering your gear and fuel, communicating with your support crew – there’s a lot to consider. Every runners understands the highs and lows when you are out on the course; Barkley takes it to the extreme. The drive, the passion and the will to not only continue, but to succeed, is admirable.

After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A panel by Ethan, Gary and a special guest, the 15th Barkley finisher and MD resident, John Kelly. Very cool.

Listening to the questions from the audience presented to the panel, I felt like I shared at least an iota of the same personality they have. I also realized some people just don’t get it (and that’s okay). Some people won’t understand; they will ask why? Why would you do this? This distance? This extreme?

I still say, why not? Why not see what you are capable of? Why not see how far you can push?

‘Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to, it’s not for them.’ – Joubert Botha

Will I ever consider even applying for a Barkley type event? Maybe, maybe not. In the past few years, I have definitely learned to “never say never”.

The first running steps I took were training for a 5k, then I pushed a little more, then just a bit more and eventually worked my way to a marathon. And now, I’m 11 days away from my first ultra.

Am I scared? Of course. Am I nervous? Heck yes. But the fear and the overwhelming idea of running 50 miles will not hold me back. I will not give up.

I’m still writing my story, one chapter at a time, one mile at a time. It’s not over yet…

You are going to run how far?

Today kicks off my November series discussing the crazy world of ultramarathon running – from crewing to training to racing!

Part 1 is long…kick back and relax!


To be honest, being out of the running world for so long, I somehow missed hearing about the ultra world. To me, if people wanted to run long, they ran marathons. When I first started running with Jeremy, he told me about his awful 1st time experience at the JFK 50 miler in 2015. He described how he felt, how he had come to terms with quitting after the marathon mark (technically making him an ultra runner) and how he continued on thanks to some running friends. Listening to his story, it certainly didn’t seem like he’d do it again. Yet, a couple months later, he shared how he signed up again. 2016 JFK went a little smoother; which seemed to cause him to seek out a new, crazier challenge – the Yeti 100. Here I was, still thinking it was crazy people ran 50 miles, now 100? Who are these crazy running friends I’ve met?

So, you can read here how Jeremy and Josh talked each other into not only entering the Yeti 100, but attempting to finish under 24 hours to be rewarded with one of these fabulous belt buckles. 

Race was on the calendar and of course, the rest of us jumped on board to help crew/pace J+J, not quite knowing all what we got ourselves into.

The Virginia Creeper trail is 33 miles from point to point and the race would go out, back and out again. Seven aid stations were set between Abingdon and White Top and we decided to travel to each one for as long as our runners needed; giving additional aid and someone to run alongside them providing company, maybe distraction from the discomfort and a mental pick-me-up as needed. Sara created a spreadsheet to help the rest of us have some sort of idea of when each of us could jump in and how many miles we would run, based on the run/walk strategy created by Sanders and Ilnicki.

Packet pickup – sweet!


Showing up at the starting line in the dark with all the other runners, support crew and friends was very exciting. I felt like we were part of a crazy cult. A few words were spoken by the race director and off they went (and so did we!).

We were all worried before the race we wouldn’t have cell service for GPS; thankfully this didn’t pose a problem. We easily navigated from stop to stop (most of the time) to await our runners. Each stop, we listened to our runners’ needs – we were ready and waiting with food, water, extra clothes/shoes, headlamps, jackets, etc.


One of the important tips I would tell an ultra crew it to make sure you eat, sleep and drink as well. In the 24-30 hours we were out on the course, I think maybe the most rest any of us got was 1 hour. Yes, we aren’t running nearly as far as the racers, but the ultra still takes a toll on you. We had been surviving on bars, PB&J and other snacks, but Mario, Sara and I knew we needed some real food before we jumped in as pacers. The options between two of the aid stations didn’t bode well for running after eating – fast food and gas stations. However, we found a Kroger and ran in to see what ready-made healthier food we could find. We headed towards the deli and AHA! The sight and smell of a rotisserie chicken caught my eye (and nose!). I think Mario and Sara thought I was crazy, but they quickly agreed the chicken sounded better than a pre-made sandwich which had been sitting in a cooler all day. We added a few snacks to our order and out to the car we went! 


Lisa and Mario hiking down from one of the trestles.

Looking good!


We pulled up to mile 33, crossed the bridge and noshed on our food as we awaited the guys to complete their first point to point. Some runners had already dropped out, or were considering to drop out at this time. The guys had been way ahead pace, and I knew we were concerned they were going too fast up front. However, they looked strong coming into the turnaround point. No pacers were allowed to join until right around mile 42, so Jeremy and Josh stayed together until then. At this time, the weather was pretty warm – the guys were sweaty and I was hoping they were hydrating well.  First pacers, Vernon and Mario jumped in from Alvarado to Damascus, a 7 mile jaunt. As we waited by the caboose, we saw Mario approaching with Jeremy – unfortunately Josh and Vernon were not with them. Thankfully, we had a pacer assigned to each, so we keep moving forward with the plan. We heard Josh was hurting and hoped to see him along the way.

I was slated to hit the trail with Jeremy around mile 56. I confess, I did not look at what elevation we would be gaining in the planned 10 mile run when I agreed to this pacing slot. Jeremy came down the trail with Jen; we refilled his water and checked his other supplies and off we went. The trail was beautiful; the surface was softer than I expected and the natural surroundings were just stunning. Unsure how Jeremy’s mental state would be at this point (especially hearing about his 50 mile experiences), I was quite surprised. He was in the game. Funny to hear him still processing the fact he was running 100 miles. For the ascent to White Top, we started off with switching off running and walking – and as we went further, we definitely started to be walking more. I encouraged Jeremy to eat and drink. He was hydrating well but he was starting to walk a little crooked. He tried to eat a waffle, but his stomach was not wanting food. I started to worry a little as we continued our trek as day turned into night. We talked about getting some liquid calories if he wasn’t able to take in much solids and climbed the last couple of miles.

When we came to White Top (mile 66), he was definitely still feeling a bit off but downed a mug of soup. After more Nuun refills and adding another layer, we headed out of White Top. Literally, it was all downhill from here. I kid you not, there must have been something magical in that soup because Jeremy was on fire! The combination of calories and a descent gave him the ability to run and run much faster! Seeing bobbing headlamps coming at you and exchanging words of encouragement to others helped the miles click by. All the way down to mile 69, Jeremy was still in a great mental state. He was tired and hurting, but was so positive to everyone in the race – I think the reciprocal positive energy kept him moving forward. We cruised into mile 69 where Lisa would take over. I could not believe we had been running together for over 3 hours – it was so peaceful and therapeutic, I just felt in the zone and had no idea of elapsed time.

At this point, I switched teams. Mario and I jumped in my car and headed back to White Top to see Josh and Sara. When they arrived, Josh was in bad shape. Shivering. Tired. Hurting. As he struggled to add layers, he was having difficulty so I jumped in to assist as Sara helped him with other tasks. And then the tears came. As a friend, I felt heartbreak. As a runner, I understood the mental anguish and the physical exhaustion (somewhat since I definitely have never pushed myself this far…yet!). As part of the aid crew, I worried about his well being. Seeing him hurt, I hurt. Internally, I struggled thinking maybe I should say, “Josh, you’ve made it 66 miles. You are an ultra runner. It’s okay to quit.” But, I didn’t. I knew he would know if it was time to quit. He sipped down some broth and just like I had seen about an hour or so before, a magical change!! Sara and Josh took off down the hill and when we saw them at the next stop, he was doing great!

Mario and I drove between stations, aiding as needed and catching a few Z’s (I did not – Mario fell asleep so quickly and snored so loudly). The exhaustion were starting to get to us. We missed Sara and Josh at one station and we quickly drove to the next. In my somewhat tired state of mind, I ended up at the wrong station. Crap. What to do? We quickly made a decision and I think I took a year off Mario’s life with my NASCAR-style driving on curvy country roads. We sailed into Taylors Landing with fingers crossed they’d be here. THANK GOODNESS! There they were, at the tent – eating and resting. Whew, minor crisis averted. Off Mario and I went to the next stop and then onto Damascus. At this point, it was about 2:40 in the morning. We had cell service again and had a few updates on Jeremy. He was plugging away still and expected to reach his goal of sub 24 hours – AWESOME!


At this point, we realized we would have enough time to make it to the finish line to see Jeremy cross and then make it back to Alvarado for Josh and Sara. A quick coffee stop for Mario and we met up with Lisa and Vernon at the finish line. Yeti is not your typical finish line. No big blow up arch, throngs of people, after race parties. No, just a couple dozen people waiting in the dark; anticipating bobbing lights coming down the dark path. We didn’t have to wait long. Jeremy and Jen came around the corner. So freaking exciting. He crossed, got a hug from Jason the race director, received his TWO belt buckles and sadly, that was that. Check off the box. 100 miles in the books. Wow.

Unfortunately, at this point, I needed to get ready to head back home and Jeremy needed to go relax/chill/shower/sleep, so the crew split up to get Jeremy home and get back out to see Josh finish (in a little over 25 hours!).

Before I finish with a few thoughts from the other crew members, I wanted to share a few tips if you are considering being part of an ultra team:

– Make sure you are part of the plan prior to the race. Know what is expected from you. Pack food for yourself and extra clothes.
– Be ready for the plan to change on the fly. Remember: the goal is to get your runner safely to the finish line. Focus on them and their needs. Communicate clearly to everyone involved of any changes.
– If you can, take a power nap. You will be exhausted and a few minutes of shut eye can help work wonders.
– Have fun! Yes, it was a long day. Yes, I was tired. But, so many fun memories were made.
– Celebrate with your runner! What an accomplishment!

Without further adieu, here are a few comments from the crew:

Mario – “Good experience. I recommend anyone thinking about doing an ultra to crew first, so you can see what is like to run an ultra and what to expect when your time comes. I will do it again any time.”

Vernon – “What is it like to pace a runner for 100 miles?  I thought the runner would be the one tired, hungry, exhausted?  Little did I expect that all of those would apply to me, they person occasionally running/walking and just riding around in a car chasing our runners.  But with that said it was an experience unlike anything else I have ever been part of.  Watching 2 guys run 100 miles was truly inspiring.  From the highs to the lows these guys pushed on and finished!  An accomplishment a small percentage of the population can say they have. If you ever decided to pace I recommend the following.  Plenty of layers of clothes, plenty of food, lots of good spirit, and the mindset that you won’t sleep.  You will go through many of the same highs and lows the runners are experiencing.  But the reward will be amazing!”

Sara’s Story (Josh’s wife):

“Being a pacer for Josh was one of the best experiences, and I would do it again in a heartbeat! When Josh signed up for Yeti, I knew right away I wanted to pace. The week leading up to the race, thoughts started flooding my head with the responsibilities of a pacer – can I physically do it and would I be able to watch him struggle, and not encourage him to stop? I actually googled tips – the dos and don’ts for pacing an ultramarathon. Some takeaways were – Do you know you can handle the distance, checking in on nutrition and hydration, don’t talk the runner’s ear off, offer moral support, don’t complain…

Tip – Review the course map! I learned the day before the race, that I had signed myself up to pace Josh going up Whitetop, gaining ~ 3,000ft in elevation. My stomach was in knots.. Could I do this?

The morning of the race was a whirlwind, the race started around 7:30 a.m., and Jeremy and Josh were off on their journey. No time to waste or worry, for the first 41.9 miles the guys could not have a pacer.  We had 2 vehicles driving to each waypoint to crew the guys. At every stop, I would carry a bag full of Josh’s preferred snacks, med kit essentials, shoes and clothes. After mile 41.9 they would pick-up pacers until the end of the race. Mile 56 is when I would be joining Josh, at this point I knew he was in rough shape, it took him about 80 minutes to run 4 miles. And, Jeremy had gone ahead with his pacer.

As I waited for Josh, I started to strategize what I needed to do – head lamp, sandwich bag full of potato chips and water to fill his bottles. When I met up with him at Taylor Valley, it was dusk. He stopped briefly to sip on some broth, then we were off. All of a sudden it was dark, I was able to get a recap of his day and state of mind – no bueno. He picks on me now, but I honestly repeated a handful of phrases for the entirely of 43 miles – “you’re doing great, excellent job, proud of you, and I love you!” My thought was don’t talk too much but those phrases will let him know I was okay. At this point you can tell we were climbing, he couldn’t even run. I kept thinking one foot in front of the other. We basically walked the 10 miles up to Whitetop, and it was freezing! And, I had to use the restroom but it was too far away. We were suppose to switch pacers at this point but I wanted to stay with him. Josh hit a tough point, it was hard for me to swallow. Miraculously, he stood up and off we went. And, I didn’t get to use the bathroom! I kept it to myself, I was shocked he was moving onward.

Josh found his inner strength, and we picked up the pace going down the hill. I was pumped! The next 33 miles was a remarkable accomplishment for Josh. Eventually, he would lose some of the momentum he found leaving Whitetop and his body started to become tired. He stubbed his toes a million times and fell twice. I kept reminding him how cool this experience was, in the woods of VA, running in the dark of the night together to chase the 100 miles. Over the course of the night into morning, I wouldn’t let him rest much at the waypoints in fear his body would totally cramp up. When we hit Mile 80 in Damascus around 3 a.m., I started to become sore and tired, but refused to stop pacing. We carried on, it was a 7 mile jaunt to the next way point. We ran, stopped, walked and repeat. He fell asleep on me twice!! I just kept on reminding him, he could sleep at the finish line 🙂 We made it to Alvarado then to Watauga Trestle – the last point before the finish. The sun was coming up, it was breathtaking – absolutely beautiful. Josh started to change gears and we were running again knowing the end was near. We passed about 8 runners. When we closed in on the finished line, we booked it down the hill, and all I remember is stepping aside and watching Josh cross the line. It was incredible.” Read Josh’s story here.

Next up, is a recap of a great ultra event I was able to attend with Josh and Jeremy – stay tuned!