JFK 50 Mile Race Recap: We did it!

“You must go on adventures to find where you truly belong.”

Like any other distance, 50 miles begins with a single step. You put one foot in front of the other, mile after mile. Just as I imagined, the JFK 50 was an amazing adventure full of many steps.

Where to begin? Even on Friday night, I was in disbelief I’d be attempting to run 50 miles the next day. Mario planned on sleeping at our house and riding with us to the race, so I made a pasta dinner for all of us. I set out my race outfit, a couple pairs of shoes, change of clothes and fuel yet still felt I wasn’t prepared. Falling asleep took awhile as I was anticipating the 3:30 a.m. wake up call.

Pre-Race Instructions
Mario, Jeremy, Sara and me before the race

We left our house at 4:15 a.m. for the trek to Boonsboro, MD. Packet pickup was quick and easy and a small group of runners were already scattered across the gym. Soon after, we found Jeremy then Josh and Sara. After a couple last minute trips to the port-a-potties, it was time for pre-race instructions. The director asked runners who had run multiple JFKs at certain finishing times to stand up.  Seeing the JFK 50 veterans was inspiring – especially those with bib numbers less than 100 (meaning elite athletes or multiple JFK50 finishes). As soon as instructions were complete, everyone headed outside for the 5-10 minute walk to the starting line.

Time to run!

Walking to the start, everyone enjoyed light conversation and seemed very calm. I had just a few minutes to take off my warm ups, then the 4 of us headed to join the runners – Mario and Jeremy went up near the front and Sara and I hung back. I began retying one of my trail shoes and then BANG! It was time to go. We started running through downtown Boonsboro for the 2.5 mile uphill journey to the Appalachian Trail.

Sara and I ran for about 1.5 miles before we hit the long, winding uphill where we decided to power walk. We climbed and climbed until we saw familiar territory, the parking lot where we began several training runs. We were happy to hit the first timing checkpoint and start on the trail. Right away, we were laughing. If you read our training post, you’ll remember the numerous times we thought we were off course. The 2nd training run we thought we went the wrong way to “tent city”. As soon as we were directed on the trail, guess where we were headed? Right towards the tents! We were right all along and had no idea. Quickly, we accessed the actual trails and started the AT section.

All of our training runs, we were pretty much the only humans on the trails. Race day was a little different – was a little tougher to plan foot placement when someone was running right in front of you. We chatted about our week as we fell into line with the others. Soon, another laughing moment. I believe I mentioned in our training blog post about our first time trying to run the course and running up the long road; trying to access directions via Facebook and finding the trail by the communication tower. On our next attempt, we thought we found the actual trail/course. Well, Saturday we found out we were supposed to go up the road! The road seems very long and is quite an incline so we ended up speed walking for most of the climb. Much more boring than the trail close by, but definitely easier to traverse than the steep, rocky path.

Once we reached the fenced area, we were back on the Appalachian Trail and on a familiar route. The path becomes rockier and some runners were having a little trouble with this more technical part of the course. We enjoyed running the trail until…BOOM! One rock reached up, grabbed Sara and down she went with a spectacular roll! Thankfully no injuries, right back up, walked it off and we continued along the way.

Soon we were at the 1st aid station at Gathland State Park. A girl commented on my pink hair as we ran through the tunnel of volunteers. We took a quick walk up the pavement before getting back on the trail. About ¾ of the way through the 2nd part of the trail, a light rain began to fall. We navigated the trail chitchatting with other runners and began the descent to Weverton Cliffs. 15 miles down! As we came off the trail, we quickly spotted John and Josh, changed out of our trail shoes, refilled our water bottles and hopped back on course. John and Josh told us we were only 20 minutes behind Jeremy and Mario. Wow! About .5 mile away, we were able to see Vern and Lisa as well as visit the 2nd aid station. I grabbed PB&J and a banana before we began the 2nd section of the day – 26 miles on the C&O.

Out of the trails – 35 miles to go!

Going from climbing on trails to running on a flat surface was a big change. Immediately, Sara and I started to keep each other in check when we saw our splits in the 8s. On this part of the course, we created a comfortable pattern. Thank goodness for aid stations every 2-5 miles; otherwise the towpath would have seemed a lot longer! As we reached each aid station, we would grab whatever fuel we needed and then walk a bit to eat and drink. Then, we’d start up the engine again which at times was difficult. I joked I needed an oil can to get the joints moving again. After a few minutes of running, it always felt much easier and we would be plugging away at 9-9:30 pace. Usually when we were in need of a break, another aid station would appear and we would start the cycle all over again.

We leapfrogged the same runners over and over again on the towpath. We met Justin from NC who is being deployed to Iraq in December, Andrew from NOVA and Geoffrey from Albuquerque. We would chat about where we were all from, our families, our jobs and offer words of encouragement. Everyone was so friendly cheering us on. Andrew told us we were doing great for our first 50 and mentioned if we kept up the pace, we’d be around 8:45. WHAT! I hadn’t even tried to calculate what our finishing time would be – we were just focusing on finishing and not being out on the course in the dark. A 9 hour finish? Wow.

26 miles in – still smiling!

The rain continued which made the path muddy and slick, especially with the leaf cover. I knew we both began to feel a little tired but mentally, we never wavered. Often, we’d run a few steps apart, always within talking distance. Although the majority of the time we were not talking, knowing a friend was near you was always comforting. We were able to see our crew again before 30 miles. Just refills on water, a few words and an update on our teammates – again, just about 30 minutes ahead. Glad to hear they were doing well. I think around this time, Sara mentioned one of the runners ahead was one of the JFK 50 veterans who usually finishes in 9:30. Soon after, we caught up and passed him.

How can you pass up a cookie like this?!

We’d chat and joke with the volunteers at the aid stations, thanking them for their help. Usually, I am a sweet tooth kind of a girl, but this time I craved the salty items. Chips and pretzels were my go-to although I did grab a pretty cookie and M&Ms. Having warm soup or broth at several stops was wonderful since the rain did make us a little chilly.

Just before mile 40, we were able to see our crew one last time. We were still smiling and in good spirits although the miles were starting to take their toll. I commented to Sara how amazing it was to still be dropping low 9 minute miles. Only 10 more to go! We were so ready to get to the road portion, and just had a couple more miles on the towpath. One of the last stations was Christmas-themed, complete with Santa Claus and Christmas cookies, yum! Not much longer and we were onto the 3rd part, road for about 8.5 miles. 

At this point, we realized our watches were off the official race miles which was frustrating since my watch said we were 1 mile further. I had stopped awhile back looking at the total miles and just focusing on our per mile pace. We ate our fuel and started on the pavement. As soon as we came off the C&O, a hill awaited. One resident was kind enough to be offering beer to help dull the pain of the incline. A few runners veered over to join him; we did not. As we reached the crest, we decided to try to run again. A little rusty, but soon we were moving. Although it was nice to be out of the muddy path, running on hard asphalt was a bit jarring.

We continued along the country road, stopping a few times when we’d reach inclines for a short walk. Then, we’d start it up again. Seeing the mile markers alongside the road was very exciting – 8, 7, 6…. We were so close! I looked at my watch to see what our overall time was and was surprised to see we had been out for 8 hours and 11 minutes. Really? It didn’t seem like that long. Is it crazy to say I started to feel a little sad the end was near?

Honestly, my muscles didn’t feel that awful until mile 45. My calves were feeling a little tight and my upper back was aching a bit but I kept trying to drop my shoulders to stay loose. I certainly felt like I had been running for hours, but not as bad as I expected.

Just before the mile 4-to-go marker, we ran into a woman we had met in the beginning of the race. My eyes went wide as I saw trails of blood running down both legs. Beast! She must have taken a spill back along the trails.

A couple more twists and turns and we approached the last aid station. 1.5 MILES TO GO! Wow! It was hard to believe our adventure was nearly over. We kept moving forward, knowing with each step we’d be seeing our family, friends and teammates soon. As we ran up one last hill, I heard a crowd ahead. I lifted up my eyes and saw the finish line! Since we didn’t see a 1 mile to go marker, this was an exciting and unexpected sight. I turned around and said, “Sara!?” She said, “Is that the finish?!” YES!! 

We were so excited – we both threw our water bottles to Mario (thank you!) and with BIG smiles, we crossed that finish line (with a cartwheel and raised arms) in 9:09:57! Our primary goal was to finish and the expected finish time we had registered with: 10 hours. We were in disbelief we finished just over 9 hours for our first 50 miler. We were reunited with our group with hugs and all immediately headed inside to warm up. A smorgasbord of food awaited us and we noshed while chatting with the guys about their race.

I am an ultramarathoner!

A couple days have passed and we are still on cloud 9. My body had a couple aches and pains, but nothing near what I imagined. I think the year of training, both running and strength workouts completely prepared my body for the challenge. It will take awhile to fully sink in what we accomplished.

Thank you to John, Josh, Vern, Lisa, Laura and Andrew for being at the aid stations to give us whatever was needed – water, fuel and most importantly, words of encouragement. Seeing friendly faces at those points really kept us moving. Thanks to Mario and Jeremy for the votes of confidence and for believing in us. Thanks to all of you for following us and cheering us on! Last, but certainly not least, thank you to Sara. Thank you for agreeing to tackle this challenge, being beside me during training runs and my partner for 50 miles of fun. I’ll never forget my first ultra. Love ya girl!

Finishing the JFK 50 means I have now checked all the boxes for my 2017 goals. What’s next? Stay tuned…

“Believe in yourself, push your limits, experience life, conquer your goals and be happy.”

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…

Guest Post: Sierra’s Journey

“Feeling healthy and feeling good about yourself is NOT a luxury – it’s an absolute necessity.”

In honor of May being National Mental Health Awareness Month, I asked my daughter Sierra to rehash a social media post she shared late last year about her own journey into better physical and mental health.

From Sierra:

At first, I was very hesitant to share my story of how fitness has positively affected my life because I am not very good at opening up to people but I was encouraged to share my story.

My sophomore year of high school, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I had always noticed when I worked out more often, exercise helped my symptoms. During this time, I was involved in competitive cheerleading and track & field, and I always felt my best after a rigorous practice. The summer before my freshman year of college, I was working out harder than ever. I was constantly in the gym and I felt amazing.

Unfortunately, as soon as I arrived to college, my schedule and habits changed and I completely stopped working out. I continued to be somewhat sedentary and ate unhealthily through my freshman and sophomore years. After two years of not working out and eating whatever I wanted, I had gained 20 lbs. When I realized how much weight I had gained and saw how great of shape Becky was in after a year of getting back into fitness and eating healthier, I became eager to make a change in my life. I was so afraid to begin though. At first, I didn’t know if I would even remember how to workout. I had also become very intimidated by the gym and was afraid to go. I felt as though I would be judged if I went.

In May of 2016, I started running and attending the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) classes Becky taught at HIIT Like A Girl and eating healthier. Running was the main aspect that really sparked my fire. I had been a sprinter in high school and had never run more than 2 miles at one time. I also thought long distance running looked like torture and had no interest in trying it….until last May.

In the beginning, I started out by running/walking 3 miles a few days a week. Eventually, I was able to run the whole 3 miles. Then, I ran my first 5k on July 4th (Liberty 5k). Running a race felt so incredible and I was happy to finish in under 30 minutes!

When I came back to school for the fall semester, I decided I wanted to try and go back to the gym to start lifting weights. I began going with a friend who knew more about weightlifting which made me feel more comfortable having someone to workout with.

Since last May, my life has changed greatly for the better. Fitness has brought so much more confidence, motivation and positivism into my life. Dealing with anxiety and depression has always made it so hard for me to become and remain motivated. I’ve always had to work extra hard to get myself going every day, and even though I’ve been pretty successful in my life, I had struggled tremendously with getting myself there. I used to have the most difficult time getting myself out of bed before noon. I would often miss class or show up late because I just couldn’t get the motivation to go.

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Now, I wake up much earlier (usually around 8 am) and I even have been getting up at 5:45 am for sunrise yoga on Thursday mornings at my college gym. I find when I start my day out with yoga, I feel so much more relaxed. I also run 3-4 times a week and workout to HIIT videos on YouTube. Not only have I run multiple 5ks, but I have also run an 8k and a two 10ks within a year of starting to run. I would like to run a half marathon by the end of the year, which I would have never thought was a possible goal for me before. In addition, I lost the weight I had gained since freshman year. Goodbye Freshman 15!

It’s truly an unbelievable feeling being able to conquer longer distances and achieve personal records. I also sit down and eat breakfast almost every morning before beginning my day now. I was never really a breakfast type of person before but now I always make sure I have time to eat breakfast because it helps with my energy level.

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I barely missed any class this past semester and the class that I did miss was not due to mental illness. Now, I have the motivation to get through each day with a positive mindset. I’m constantly busy due to school, work, sorority, and working out. I don’t even have much time to watch TV, but I haven’t felt stressed like I would have before. I am so much happier and have set a goal for 2017 of continuing to better myself physically, mentally and spiritually. I want to improve myself in all aspects so that I can become the best version of myself. I would not be where I am right now if I had not started running last year. I am so incredibly blessed to have the ability to be able run and workout, and I want to continue to do so as long as I can. As for the future, I plan to continue learning as much as I can about fitness and nutrition so that I can continue a healthy lifestyle and help other people.

My advice to others?

Starting to work out can be intimidating, but it can be extremely beneficial for anyone suffering from a mental illness. If you’re just starting out and nervous, even a run/walk for 30 minutes 3 days a week can be helpful. I’m not saying exercise will completely cure mental illness, but exercise is a natural form of medication I strongly believe in. I still have bad days but even on my worst days, getting a workout in or going on a run can make a big difference for me.

For anyone who may be struggling with a mental illness, I just want to say I know how it can be stressful and sometimes you feel like there’s no way out, but YOU CAN’T GIVE UP. Keep pushing yourself to find ways to put more positivity in your life; fill your life with positive people who you can lean on when times are rough.

You are stronger than you think and you will get through it.”

Thanks for sharing Sierra!