Monday, November 24, 2014

JFK 50 mile 2014 race report

The start of this year's JFK was bitterly cold, nearly a record low for this race.  It was 16 degrees F when Divesh dropped me off at the starting area, and I told him that if it got colder than the starting temps for Arrowhead, including the warm year, we were turning around and going home.  Fortunately at JFK you're able to wait inside a school gymnasium for part of the pre-race morning.  Twenty minutes before the race start, all the runners have to leave the school and walk about five or ten minutes to the start line.  It was a strange, slightly somber procession.  I tried to jog to warm up but it was hopeless since we were only going to freeze again standing at the start for the ten minutes left before the 7am start.

At 7am on the dot, we were off.  The first 2.5 miles are on a road, up a big hill, which normally probably wouldn't feel very good, but on this day I just wanted to warm up, so it was actually pleasant to be going uphill.  Because it was cold and windy, my heart rate monitor was on the fritz and kept showing numbers in the mid 180s, which I knew was way higher than whatever my actual heart rate was.  Without the monitor to keep me in check, I probably ran too fast on those first couple of miles, but it felt so good to be finally on my way that I didn't care.

At mile 2.5 we turned onto the Appalachian Trail.  There was the usual trail race traffic jam as some people slowed heavily from their road pace, but the first mile of the trail is wide enough to pass so it wasn't much of a problem.  The trees blocked the wind and my heart rate monitor came back to life.  My goal was to keep my heart rate in the 155-158 range, though it can be tricky to stick to a particular heart rate on a crowded trail, when you don't want to be the annoying person who passes someone on a downhill only to immediately slow on the next uphill!  The pack thinned out by mile 6 or so and from there until the final descent off the AT, you could run without worrying about other racers.

The entire AT section was just excellent running.  The sun had come up and it was a beautiful day, still cold but perfect running weather.  The trail is a good mix of difficult, rocky sections (made more difficult by the leaves covering a lot of the rocks) and some easier, less technical sections; there are just enough non-technical parts to keep you from getting mentally exhausted by all the rock-hopping.  My pace felt conservative and comfortable, and my homemade sports drink, being used in its second race, was going down excellently.  I had high hopes for a good stomach day, and those hopes would end up coming true!

Before the race I had gone back and forth in my head many times over shoe choice for this race.  I know...but it's a complicated choice!  You've got the mostly-but-not-entirely rocky trail section, the crushed gravel towpath, and the road.  Trail shoes, for the rocks?  Super light racing flats for the towpath?  Cushy shoes for the pavement??  In the end, I decided to settle the issue with some math:  I timed how long it would take to change my shoes.  The answer was 37 seconds, which made the solution clear:  wear trail shoes for the AT and change into super light Hokas (my Hoka Cliftons are lighter than my road racing shoes!) for the rest of the race.  I knew I would save far more than 37 seconds, not to mention my ankle ligaments, by wearing trail shoes on 13 miles of rocks.  My one disappointment with this strategy was that although it left me all set to save some time by running quickly down the steep mile and a half descent at the end of the AT section, I wasn't able to put my trail shoes to use there because the trail congestion came back and the trains of people were too long to be able to pass.  It was a shame not only for the wasted time but also because the descent looked like it would be great fun to speed down.  Still, on the whole, I definitely appreciated having the trail shoes and I would probably go with the same shoe strategy if I ever do the race again.

I think I came into the aid station at the bottom of the switchbacks, which is mile 15.5, in about 12th place, but because I stopped to change my shoes (and also ended up changing out of three-quarter length tights and into shorts), I wasn't really sure where I was place-wise when I started running again.  All I knew was that I felt fantastic and was ready to speed up.  Just after this aid station you go back onto the AT briefly for a very enjoyable half mile of smooth trail and then you're dumped out onto the canal towpath.  The towpath section of the race is almost exactly a marathon--26.3 miles.  It took all the self-restraint I could manage not to set off too quickly in this section, but I knew I had to be patient.  Anyone who knows my patience level knows why this was the most difficult part of the entire race...

It was also the most boring.  I did enjoy the first few miles of the towpath, with the absolutely perfect weather and the nice light feeling of getting out of my tights and into shorts.  But I had seriously underestimated just how hard it is to run an entire marathon on pancake-flat ground.  I had done plenty of flat training runs, but never more than 16 miles at a time, since I tried to end all my long runs with 4 or 5 miles of hills in order to simulate the towpath-to-road transition at the end of JFK.  This was definitely a mistake and next time I would do at least one 23-25 mile run of pure flatness.  After 17 or 18 miles of towpath I was struggling to force my legs to keep moving at the right speed, even though I knew I wasn't too tired because I was still running almost exactly the same pace for the same heart rate (155ish beats per minute and 8:15 or so minute miles).  I also got sick and threw up once, though like in Flagstaff, it was only the one time and I felt immediately better afterwards, and more importantly stayed better for the rest of the race.  Overall it was a total win on the stomach front.

The towpath boredom was sometimes relieved by briefly talking with a few other runners, but I was on my own 99% of the time.  I did manage to catch up to a nice guy named Keith and talk with him for a while, but he was just a little too fast for me and I reluctantly had to slow down.  Fortunately he was using a run-walk strategy so we ended up leapfrogging each other most of the rest of the race, at least until he left me in the dust the last couple of miles.

The only other excitement during the towpath section came from finally starting to pass some women.  I think I had made it into 10th by mile 27, then 7th by mile 38, where Divesh pointed out that there were two more women only three minutes in front of me.  I was feeling rough at that point and thought I had no chance of catching them, but amazingly enough, one caffeinated gel later, I bounced back and made it into 6th.  The girl I caught stayed right behind me though and I knew it was time to try to find a faster gear.

I came off the towpath having done 3:38 for the slightly long marathon, which happily was seven minutes faster than I'd been hoping for.  I passed one more girl early in the final 8.5 mile road section, and from then on it was just pure pain, misery, and waiting for the end.  I was doing okay on the flats and downhills but every single uphill on that section felt like it was going to do me in.  It was only the desperation to hang onto my 5th place that kept me going.  At 3 miles to go there's a fairly large uphill and I stopped to walk the second half of it.  A guy from Alabama who I had passed a little earlier re-passed me here and said something like "Why did you slow down?"  He was sort of joking but sort of not, and he was exactly right--slowing down wasn't doing me any good.  It only slightly reduced the pain and it was just going to prolong the amount of time until I could stop running.  I tried my best to get it together and was also spurred on by a guy in a red shirt who flew by, looking like he was hardly working despite being almost 48 miles in.  At 2 miles to go there's another uphill and at the top I looked back--no women in sight.  I finally believed, for the first time, that I was actually going to hold on.  I relaxed a little, sped up for the downhill into Williamsport, and made the final turn towards the finish line, crossing the line for an official time of 7:32.

It was finally over!  Though I couldn't fully enjoy the finish because I was in so much pain, I was definitely happy.  My goals had been sub 8 hours and top 10 women, and both of those were "stretch" goals--I thought 8:15 was a more likely outcome.  From miles 30 to 50 I pushed myself as hard as I ever have, and, with the help of that Alabama guy, I didn't give up at the end like I often do.

Now I'm ready for a good long rest, during which I will hopefully finally figure out what I want to do with my next year running-wise...