Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Long Awaited JFK 50 Miler Race Report

It has been one month since I ran my first 50 mile race, the JFK 50 miler, and now I finally have the time and the motivation to write a race report. Not sure why it has taken so long. While I had a great race, I somehow lost all interest in running for a quite a while afterwards (and regained a strong interest in sleeping, eating chocolate and drinking beer). I am only just starting to get back to regular running right now. A similar thing happened after my first marathon, so maybe this is what my body needs after tackling a new long distance challenge.

The JFK 50 miler is one of America's oldest and largest ultramarathons, attracting elite athletes and first-timers from all over the country. I have wanted to run this race for a number of years now. The challenge of running 50 miles was irresistible to me, feeling both achievable after running multiple marathons, and yet at the same time also seeming very daunting. With my advancing middle age making me more aware of how little time I have left on this Earth, I finally summoned up the courage to register during the summer. To ensure I wouldn't try to back out, I announced my intentions, to the complete indifference of everyone I knew. Overwhemed by encouragement, I started a training schedule that consisted mostly of weekend back to back long runs,  along with a few long distance races (two full marathons and a 50K).

The race takes place on the Saturday of the weekend before Thanksgiving. I started to become very nervous about a week before, even though my training had gone fairly well. I started to look for ways to back out. My wife dismissed all my excuses and told me that I was going to run the race, whether I liked it or not. We set out with our daughter for the 4 hour drive from New York to Hagerstown, Maryland on the Friday before Thanksgiving. After checking into the hotel and picking up the race packet, my wife quickly located the hipster part of town (identified by two coffee shops and a group of people with placards demonstrating for transgendered rights). We ate an excellent meal at the Rhubarb House restaurant, and then returned to the hotel for an early night.

I woke up at 5:30 the next morning after 2 hours of interrupted sleep, and we left just after 6am for the 7am start. Unfortunately I had assumed that the start of the race would be somewhere near to Hagerstown, which was where the race packet pickup was. But after checking the race instructions (something I should have done the night before) we saw that it was over 20 miles away in the town of Boonsboro. We made it to the start line just after the race had started. I started the race completely on my own, slowly jogging up the main street of Boonsboro towards the Appalachian Trail, where I caught up with the back of the pack.

The race itself has three distinct sections. The first section involves a three mile climb up to the Appalachian Trail, which is followed for another 13 miles or so on the Trail. This was beautiful in the early morning mist, although hilly and very rocky, making running very difficult at times. Most of the people around me walked a large part of the race here. I became frustrated at times that I couldn't run far without tripping over hidden roots and rocks and landing on my face (something I did twice, to the concern of people around me). I ran for a while with a guy wearing a tuxedo, who told me he had ran 100 miles in the same tuxedo in Vermont the month earlier.

After around three hours the course wound steeply down the side of a hill to leave the Appalachian Trail at around mile 16. We came across a big aid station with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I munched on gratefully. I was beginning to feel a little tired at this point. We then started the second part of the course, 26 miles on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath. This part of the race is infamous for being long and monotonous. However after 3 hours on the Appalachian Trail I was grateful for an opportunity to zone out a little while running. I actually found the towpath to be quite scenic, and even beautiful in parts. I met my wife and daughter at mile 27, at which point I was feeling strong again. This gave me a big boost, and we ran together for 3 miles. Everyone passing us by looked longingly at our daughter tucked in a blanket in the running stroller, and offered to swap places with her.

There were aid stations every three or four miles, which gave me something to focus on once fatigue started to set in around mile 32. Having researched the race in the months before, I had read that people often encounter two "walls" during a 50 mile race: one around 20 miles, similar to the one in the marathon, and another bigger wall after 30 miles. My training had prepared me for the 20 mile wall, which was not really a problem. After 32 miles, I hit a period of fatigue which lasted for about 10 miles. I settled into a pattern of running for 5 minutes and walking for 1 minute. I had to force myself to keep to this routine as the miles passed by, even though I was very tempted to reverse it. This felt like a real mental challenge and test of will. It didn't feel any worse than the wall in the marathon, it just lasted much longer.

I had my photo taken with Santa Claus at the mile 34 aid station, where I wasn't feeling that great.

We finally left the towpath at mile 42, and began the last section along a windy road through rolling farmland. This was once again quite beautiful, although the rolling hills at this point were challenging. I ran the downhills and walked the uphills. After a few more miles the afternoon turned into evening and I started to feel better. I was able to run without walk breaks for the last few miles. During the last mile of the race, which went through the town of Williamsport,  I become emotional and teary. It felt like such a long and epic day of running. I crossed the finish line in darkness with a time of 10 hours 35 minutes: not great, but not bad for a first 50 miler. I felt wonderful at the end, and could have carried on running. My wife and daughter met me at the finish line and dragged me to the car and back to the hotel for a shower and food.

I truly loved running this race, even the painful parts. It felt very special. I remained on a high for a few days afterwards, and was even able to walk down stairs a week later.  I will be back for more. I'm hooked!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amica Marathon Race Report

This last weekend we were visiting family in Narragansett, Rhode Island. My mother-in-law made us cheesecake. Her cheesecake is the best cheesecake in the world, and I ate lots of it. Fortunately, our visit coincided with the Amica marathon, which was taking place in nearby Newport. Since a serving of cheesecake (at 2.8 ounces, about 1/6th of the entire cake) has around 250 calories, running a marathon would allow me to eat two entire cakes and not put on weight (I expect to burn at least 3000 calories while running a marathon). I had also heard that the course was very scenic, but this was a secondary consideration. After downing a few beers on Saturday night the deal was sealed: no more cheesecake or beer until I brought back a medal from the race.

I woke up at 5am on Sunday to the sound of heavy rain. I left the house a little later and drove 15 miles in the dark to the race start in downtown Newport. The weather conditions were truly abysmal. It was cold (in the 40's), windy and raining hard. The rain was a cold rain, which later turned to a hard hail. The race website later characterized the conditions as being the worst imaginable for running. My wife later told me that when I didn't drop out of the race she really, seriously began to have concerns about my mental state.

The marathon started at 8am, and two minutes later I was questioning the wisdom of what I was doing. My shoes filled with freezing cold water and I was completely soaked. The course was a point to point race, first passing through downtown Newport before heading into some picturesque neighbourhoods with the large historic mansions Newport is famous for. We ran for a while along a road by the seashore, where the weather was at it's worst. In addition to the lashings of rain and wind, waves crashed over the seawall onto the course. The scenery was dramatic at times, and wild. I found myself sometimes running but almost stationary, stopped by a wall of wind. I began to feel I was participating in something special, a legendary race, tales of which would be passed down the generations.

I reached at halfway point a little after two hours, when many half-marathoners finished their races, leaving the field a little barer. The second half of the race was less interesting than the first, being a couple of out and backs along roads in and out of Newport. Actually this part of the race was quite boring, and I don't have many memories of it. I finished in my worst marathon time ever, 4 hours 23 minutes. However I was very happy to have finished and considered this an achievement. In retrospect if I were to do this race again, I would only do the half marathon, which was extremely scenic, rather than the full. Even though this would mean eating less cheesecake.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Blues Cruise 50K Race Report

I wasn't sure whether I would be able to make this race. The previous week I was suffering from quite a bad chest infection, picked up on my way home from Greece. My voice was hoarse and I was short of breath. I was worried I might have swine flu. Finally, the day before the race, I went to see a doctor. I was told to take some Tylenol and get some rest. I took the lack of concern from my doctor as an encouraging sign and started preparing for the race for the following day.

The race was set in Amish country, in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania. This is the furthest I have ever driven to and from a race in a single day, at close to 260 miles round trip. It was an important part of my training for the JFK 50 miler in November, since at 5 miles longer than the marathon it gave me an opportunity to run the longest distance I needed for my training program. It was also a trail run, which would be good practice for the first 16 miles of the JFK race which takes place on the Appalachian trail.

The race was hosted by the Pagoda Racers and their website claimed it was suitable to introduce newcomers to the world of ultra trail running with a course that was "very runnable but challenging enough to make it interesting to everybody". I later found the first part of this statement to be a lie. Here is the elevation profile for the race:

While the race did not have huge climbs, there was a lot of up and down for most of the trail, which ran through woods and fields. Furthermore, at mile 10 (and again at mile 20 - the course was an out and back) was Skislope Hill: 300 ft of elevation gain in less than half a mile. The trail was covered in tree roots and stones. I tripped and fell several times on the roots, as did most people I spoke to. Fortunately I was carrying hand held water bottles in both hands, which were very useful for cushioning my falls.

The aid stations, at every 3-4 miles, were very well stocked with Heed (my favorite Gatorade-like drink), chocolate goodies and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (very yummy). At one aid station they were grilling beef burgers. Towards the end of the race I was given cold wet towels that were placed on my head and back to cool me in down in the heat.

I spent the first half of the race running in groups of 3 or 4 people, which I found to be very pleasant and social. We referred to each other by the states we had traveled from. I was New York, and spent quite a bit of time running with West Virginia and Massachusetts. I ran the second half of the race on my own, when most of the field had become very spread out. At one point I realized I had lost the trail when I ended up at the shore of a lake with nowhere to go, necessitating retracing my steps a half mile. I didn't really hit the wall like I usually do during a marathon. I think the enforced walking breaks during the very hilly sections and my overall very slow pace as a result of running on trails helped conserve my energy. I actually felt better at the end of the race than I usually do in a marathon. I finished in a fairly slow 6 hours 21 minutes. I was happy with this time given the terrain and the fact that this was my first trail race.

Trail running is very different from road running and for me requires some new running skills. The race seemed more social than the marathons I have run in, and the beauty of the countryside helped keep my mind off the difficulties of running the course. I could definitely become hooked, and will be looking to do some more trail races in the future.

Friday, October 2, 2009

North Face Speaker Series: Dean Karnazes

The other night I went to see Dean Karnazes give a talk at Symphony Space as part of the North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. Having read Dean's book "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of all All-Night Runner" a couple of years ago, I was intrigued to see what Fitness Magazine claims "might just be the fittest man in the world" looks like in person. Dean seems to be quite a controversial figure in the ultrarunning world. He has raised awareness of the sport through his book and media appearances. On the other hand, some people resent the attention he receives at the expense of more competitive runners. There is no doubting he is an impressive athlete: running 350 miles non-stop and winning the Badwater 135 mile race in Death Valley in 2004. When someone asks how your run was, how often do you get to say it was OK for the first two nights, but the third night without sleep was a little psychotic?

Seeing Dean in person makes me realize he is clearly at a very different level of fitness and conditioning than the rest of us, in the same way that the Kenyan runners who lead the pack of the New York marathon are physically very different to the runners that follow. As well as being very lean, he is also surprisingly muscular. He doesn't look like a skinny runner. As a former weight lifter who likes to drink beer, I found this quite heartening. I wanted to go to the gym and lift some weights after seeing him. 

Since most of the audience were runners, the majority having run  marathons or longer races, I was hoping to hear Dean talk about what it takes to run crazy distances like 350 miles. What sort of training is needed for such an event? How much harder is it running 350 miles than running 50 miles or 100 miles? How do you explain to your wife that you want to go on a three day run? What we saw was a video of Dean on the Dave Letterman show, which was entertaining, and some anecdotes about his 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days tour.  He did talk a little about the why's and how's of extreme running, but not enough in my opinion.  I would really like to hear him talk about his achievements from the point of view of someone who one day might also be tempted to do something a little crazy. Overall I had an entertaining, if not enlightening, evening.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Running in a state of anarchy

This week I visited the town of Thessaloniki in northern Greece for an academic conference. Upon making my flight reservations I started receiving ominous warnings concerning threats posed by ultra-leftist, militant anarchist groups. (These warnings were sent to me from a security company contracted by my employer, not from the anarchists groups themselves...) The threats consisted of car-bomb attacks in Athens and Thessaloniki, the suspects being a group called the "Revolutionary Struggle". I was warned to avoid political demonstrations, allow extra time for travel and to exercise increased vigilance near official buildings and banks. I decided not take these warnings too seriously. Living in the UK throughout the 70's and 80's when the IRA were regularly blowing things up has made me a little blase about these sorts of things.

On my first day in Thessaloniki I went out for a run. Thessaloniki has a nice harbour area with a pedestrian walkway, starting from the downtown party district and going for almost 4 miles to the far reaches of town populated at nighttime by fishermen and wild dogs. I enjoyed some very pleasant running, passing hot dog vendors, tourists and even occasionally other runners. I did see some very troubling signs of a society with a serious sense of humour. Along with some anti-USA and anti-police graffiti, I saw some graffiti that I thought was fairly original.

Otherwise, I didn't really encounter any other signs of an anarchist uprising. I went out for a four hour long run on Sunday night, and was fairly well tolerated. I was only made fun of once during the entire time by a group of teenage kids. Given that the rest of the town was out partying hard before returning to work the following day, I thought the group's observation that I was a wierdo had some validity. I fueled myself during the run with massive hot dogs and corn on the cob bought from sidewalk vendors. The wild dogs I encountered on the far side of town were far better behaved than the domesticated dogs (and owners) I usually encounter on the Brooklyn Heights promenade. Overall, the running that I did while in Greece turned out to be one of the favourite parts of my trip. Running in an unfamiliar town can be a real adventure, especially when there are anarchists hiding in the shadows.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A rare moment of foolishness

Earlier this summer, in a rare moment of foolishness, I applied for a spot in the JFK 50 mile race in Maryland in late November. My application was accepted. However I wasn't ready to mentally deal with the prospect of training for a 50 mile run. My longest race up till now has been the marathon. So I decided to forget about the JFK 50 miler, and hoped it would go away.

The JFK 50 mile race is one of the oldest and largest ultra-marathons in the United States. It starts with 16 miles along the Appalachian Trail, followed by 26 miles along the C&O Canal Towpath and finishes with 8 miles of paved roads. It attracts over 1,000 starters from all walks of life. Most people finish the race in 9 to 12 hours. I wouldn't be finishing in 9 to 12 hours since I had no intention of actually running this thing. After running the Sri Chinmoy marathon a couple of weeks ago I decided that running another 24 miles after completing a marathon was a really stupid idea. So I decided once again to forget about the JFK 50 miler, and hoped it would go away.

This weekend I decided to see what training for a 50 mile race might be like. I ran two back-to-back longish runs, 18 miles on Saturday and 9 miles on Sunday. Both runs were quite hilly, on Route 1A by the sea starting from Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island (where we were staying with family.) I completed both runs quite happily. With memories of the Sri Chinmoy marathon fading, I am once again toying with the idea of actually running the JFK 50. With 11 weeks to go I have time to push my long runs up to 30 miles, which is enough to finish the race according to majority opinion surveyed on the internet (many people run the race on much less training mileage). The key to finishing the race seems to be to combine running with regular walking breaks, and coping with massive amounts of pain for a very long period of time.

After outing myself, I am hoping this won't be my last blog entry on the JFK 50 miler. If all goes well, I should be blogging about my training, and the race itself, in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Monday, August 31, 2009

Comments from the sidelines of the running shoe revolution

The New York Times had an article yesterday on the "back to basics" movement in running shoe design (link). The last few decades of increasingly more sophisticated (and more expensive) running shoes have apparently not lead to any reduction in the number of running injuries. A passage in "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall cites the statistic that there is a correlation between how much money people spend on their running shoes and how likely they are to become injured. More expensive shoes equals more likely to become injured (however people who spend lots of money on running shoes might be likely to run more...)

I started experimenting with the Nike Free 5.0 a couple of months ago after reading "Born to Run" (which I highly recommend). The Nike Free is marketed as a training shoe, providing minimal cushioning and support in order to develop and strengthen the foot muscles. It is claimed by proponents of the back to basics movement that shoes with too much cushioning make the foot muscles lazy and weak from under-use, increasing the likelihood of injury.

I bought my Nike Free's from Paragon in New York in July, and the next day did a 15 mile training run in them through Brooklyn and Manhattan. My feet did get a little sore, but I also noticed some tiredness in my core muscles and glutes that I had never experienced before: these muscles were being engaged more to power my running. I also noticed that my posture was more upright, whereas in cushioned shoes I tend to lean forward quite a bit when I run. Since then I have ran exclusively in the Nike Free's while training for the fall marathon season. I am not sure I would recommend these shoes for marathons, but at this point I am not sure I want to run a marathon in my regular cushioned shoes either. My old running shoes felt like superbly comfortable slippers when I tried them on recently, but I couldn't imagine running in them again. One unexpected benefit of the Nike Free's is that my chronic lower back pain has completely disappeared, a back pain I have had for several years. It never occurred to me that back pain can be caused by running.

Some drawbacks of the Nike Free's. There are deep carves along the length and width of the soles in which small stones become trapped. I have found it necessary to remove stones from the soles once or twice a week. I have also had problems with the sizing of the shoe: the upper of the right shoe sometimes presses quite a bit against the top of my foot, causing some discomfort on longer runs. Other people have recommended going up a size when buying these shoes.

My conclusion so far is that the Nike Free's are a stepping stone on the way to running in lighter shoes. I will probably keep using the Free's for training, but I would like to find a lightweight shoe with a little more support for long distance running.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Marathon

Yesterday I ran the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence marathon. I did not find transcendence. The race took place in Rockland State Park, near Nyack in Rockland County, New York. It was hosted by the Sri Chinmoy spiritual organization.

This was not a typical marathon for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was held on a Tuesday morning, in the middle of August (and over 80 degrees). Secondly, it consisted of 9 loops of a lake with aid stations at every mile providing sea-weed, M&M's and coke. There was a very serious-faced poet stationed at one point who for the entire race read inspirational pieces in a monotone voice about overcoming adversity to reach one's goals. Musical groups seated in the shade along the course sang us happy, bouncy songs. There was a guy under a tree playing a sitar. I turned up at the race ten minutes before the start and was told while picking up my number that I had plenty of time.

I ran the race in my Nike Free 5.0 running shoes, which I had been experimenting with for the past month. These shoes are designed to make you feel like you are running barefoot, providing minimal cushioning. They lived up to their goals: my feet and legs hurt quite a bit after 18 miles of pounding. The hardest part about the race was seeing my car parked on every lap and wanting to jump in and drive home. I recorded my second worst time ever for a marathon (4:17), and almost fell asleep in the car driving home. In hindsight, I had a great time. Looking forward to next year...