Friday, December 3, 2010

Becoming an Ultra Groupie: JFK 50-Miler Crew/Pacing Report

The weekend of November 19-21 began with an offhanded comment to Mrs. ESG on Sunday, November 14th.  I mentioned that I had two friends doing the JFK 50-miler, and that at least one of those friends would be going it alone and could certainly use some help.  To my pleasant surprise, Mrs. ESG said, "You should go," and once I made sure that I heard her correctly and that she was serious, I hastily contacted my friends Joe and Amy about my availability to help them out, made travel arrangements and got psyched up to take part in one of the country's most storied ultra-running events.

This year marked the 48th running of the race, which is the largest ultra-distance run in the country, with about 1000 runners.  Some people refer to it as the "road marathon" of ultras, in terms of organization and course support.  I found it to be a very interesting - and mostly accessible - event.


After touching base with Joe and Amy, it was clear that Amy was pretty well set on course support, but that Joe could use some help.  I flew to Baltimore mid-day Friday, rented a car and headed to my hotel in Hagerstown. My flight was slightly delayed, and I ended up running out of time to get in my own run.

I met Joe at the "Expo", which was really just a few JFK 50-Miler t-shirts and fleeces around the indoor pool of the Clarion Hotel in Hagerstown.  There was a ragtag assembly of runners and their crews, with everything from the lean and chiseled to the pear-shaped.  The longer I linger around the sport of running, the more I learn that runners come in all shapes and sizes, and that one of the greatest things about the sport is that it has room for everyone and their individual goals, not just within the sport as a whole, but within most running events themselves.  20-handicap golfers don't get to play at The Masters; go-kart drivers don't get to jump into NASCAR events; and, flag football players don't get to play a few downs in the Super Bowl.  But in running, the elites and the rest of us line up at the same line, cover the same course, and can rightfully claim the same sense of accomplishment.

Having forgotten his bag, I followed Joe back to his hotel, got his stuff and returned to my hotel to chill out and prepare for a fun-filled day of crewing and running.  I had hoped to have dinner at an Afghan Restaurant in Hagerstown, only to find that it was closed when I got there at around 7:30.  What kind of restaurant closes at 7:00 p.m. on Friday?  An Afghan one, apparently.  After driving around downtown Hagerstown (mindful of the "No Cruising" signs, I found a nice little bistro-type restaurant, where I had a delicious Thai-style salmon and a Yuengling draft. 


After fueling up on the hotel's complimentary - yet underwhelming - breakfast, it was time to find my way to Aid Station at Mile 15.5, where the runners make the transition from an historic section of the Appalachian Trail to the C&O Canal Towpath, for 26.3 miles of flat, lovely, painfully monotonous running.  Following the directions to the Aid Station proved tricky, and resulted in being loudly berated by a large pickup-truck-driving property owner for having traversed his lawn to try to find a place to park.  Once the concerns about being shot subsided, I found where to the leave the car and made my way to aid station/viewing area.

There was a decent-sized crowd, and runners were streaming through, though they hardly seemed like elite ultrarunners.  It turns out that runners sporting orange race numbers had been granted a 2-hour "head start", in order to be sure to make it through the race's multiple checkpoints under the allotted cutoff times.  That explained everything.

What followed was a parade of mixed characters, including an older guy in a classic, tattered gray Members Only jacket, a guy who appeared to have simply stumbled out of the woods after living there for an extended period of time, and a couple of runners with bloodied faces from spills sustained on the rugged Appalachian Trail.  When one guy came by with a bandage on his cheek and a streak of fresh blood running down his face, I turned to my friend Bryan (Amy's husband and crew chief) and said, "That's why they don't allow shaving on the course."

I was "on alert" by 9:00 am, as Joe thought he could have been at the aid station by then.  Of course, the overall leader came through at about 8:55, so Joe may have been a bit overly-optimistic about the pacing of the early stage.  Sometime around 9:30, Joe blew through like a man on a mission.  I gave him his fresh bottle of Heed and he was on his way to the towpath.  He did not break stride for more than a couple of seconds, and I waited for Amy to come through.  She was a few minutes behind, running with her friend Matt.  In contrast to Joe, they stopped, ate, offered warm greetings and otherwise seemed to be in good spirits.  When they left, so did I, trying to find my way to Mile 27, aka, the Antietam Aid Station.

Following the race-issued directions to the Mile 27 aid station/crew area was not difficult, except for the fact that the final bridge - just a few hundred yards from the parking area - was under construction.  I parked near a business and tried to walk across the bridge, but was quickly thwarted by the foreman.  He was gruff at first, but ended up being very helpful by instructing me and another wayward crew staffer as to how to get around the river to the aid station.  A number of twisting, turning, up-and-down roads later, I was at the parking area.  Nearly everyone else had apparently gotten the "Bridge Out" memo.  I found a spot to wait and watch for Joe, called home and then realized that it was likely to be a while before he came along.  I wandered to a lovely spot down by the river and just basked in the moment of being in nature, doing something I very much enjoy doing, surrounded by people who seemed to share that joy.

I found Bryan again and we waited together.  Joe came through still looking good; Amy was not far behind, but she had dropped Matt by then.  Interestingly, Joe had waffled about whether he wanted my company for the last 12 miles, but when I asked him if he wanted me to run with him, he yelled, "Yes, please!!" as he took off along the ever-flat towpath trail.  Bryan waited for Matt and another friend, and I left  in search of the Mile 38 aid station, known as Taylor's Landing.

MILES 38-50

Arriving at the Mile 38 aid station area with time to spare, I changed into my running garb and hung out in the car for a while.  The parking area was at the bottom of a hill next to the charming Spriggs Delight Goat Farm, and a little boy was having quite the conversation with some of the farm's featured livestock.

I tried to stretch and warm up.  The temperature was probably in the high-50's, but it would drop when the sun ducked behind passing clouds and the wind picked up.  I bounced around trying to stay loose and warm (wearing only a sleeveless shirt and shorts).  When Joe finally rolled in, it appeared that the runner I'd seen previously had been body-snatched.  The strong stride had turned into a shuffle.  I handed him his bottle and started to run slowly alongside him.  The first words out of his mouth did not bode well for the remaining 12 miles: "I gotta walk for a minute," he grumbled, and so I stopped my watch until we actually started running.

Reading the situation to figure out what Joe needed, I tried to get him to eat at the aid station.  He was not interested, and - despite my relative inexperience with ultramarathons - I knew this was a sign of trouble.  I let Joe walk for a bit, then prodded to him to resume running (the first of many times).  Joe did a somewhat tragically hilarious impersonation of Redd Foxx.  With a sideways-leaning shuffle, he declared "This is the big one! You hear that, Elizabeth? I'm coming to join ya, honey!"  We caught up to a fit-looking young redheaded woman, and chatted with her briefly.  She was experiencing a "bad patch", and I tried to talk her through it.  As we were chatting, Amy came by with Bryan, looking like she was out for a few minutes of picking daisies on a lazy summer afternoon.  She slowed down long enough to say hello, but acknowledged that she was "in a groove" and that she should thus "roll with it."  The redhead's competitive edge kicked in, and she took off with Amy.  As I learned later, the redhead did not necessarily "play well with others".

Joe and I were on our own for a bit, mixing stretches of running with stretches of walking.  A number of people passed us, and we pulled into the next aid station.  Joe still wasn't eating, and I did not know how to help him with that.

After about 3.5 miles on the towpath, we took a hard right onto the road, for the final 8+ "gently rolling" road miles.  The first climb on the road was formidable, and we encountered a runner on his cell phone.  I overheard him tell the other person that he'd be finishing in just over 8 hours.  When he hung up, I said, "Really, 8 hours?" and he replied, "Yeah, just need to do 10-minute miles, and we'll break 8:10."  I tried to use that to encourage Joe, and he perked up a bit.  However, this and all remaining instances of "perking up" were generally short-lived.

The next few miles were all about trying to find anything to help Joe keep moving forward.  While we negotiated walking up hills and through aid stations, his running pace was actually pretty good for being in the final few miles of 50-mile race.  A strong downhill runner generally, Joe was getting down into the mid-9-minute range when he was running.

With about 3 or so miles left, we pulled through another aid station, and I told Joe he needed some final nourishment.  He barked, "I know, I know!", and I explained that I was just looking out for him.  We loped along for a couple of minutes before Joe said, "Sorry for being such a drama queen back there."  I just laughed and explained that I understood, and that I was not taking anything personally at this late stage.

We trudged along, until we saw the "2 Miles to Go" sign.  Joe was hurting, but he was hanging tough.  Then we made it to the "1 Mile" sign, and it was clear that he would be able to finish.  I continued to brush off all cheers towards me, constantly saying, "Not me . . . him," as well-wishers and volunteers said, "Good job", or "Looking strong".

Finally, after more than two hours together, we came up on the finish line.  I sprinted away from Joe and went around, so that he would have the moment to himself.  There were a couple of large trucks obscuring the finish from the back side, so I missed him crossing the line, but saw him stumbling around afterwards.  He seemed happy, but dazed and quite wobbly.  In the meantime, I saw Amy, who was shivering on the ground, having slowed down herself late in the race.  Still, she finished 10 minutes ahead of Joe and was 10th overall female.  Impressive!  Joe managed a 24-minute PR, despite the late-race fade.  I consider it a stellar performance, even if he might not be of a similar mind.


Amy was cold and could not find Bryan, so I gave her my jacket and tried to find Bryan and, for that matter, Joe.  After some searching, I found Joe in the gym of the school by the finish line, and he looked terrible.  He said he was feeling sick, and was ghostly pale.  He disappeared to the men's room, and I checked on him a while later.  He was still not well, so I searched high and low for some ginger ale for him.  Eventually, after some gentle coaxing, he agreed to go to the medical area, where he was able to lie down for a spell, take some IV fluids, and otherwise get his wits about him.

For my part, I was famished, and finally was convinced that it would be okay to eat some of the delicious food provided by Moe's for runners.  There seemed to be no lack of nourishment, and pacers are runners, too, right?

The gym was an interesting scene, full of exhausted, happy, folks gingerly limping their way around with their medals gleaming on their torsos.  I did hear a number of versions of, "Boy, did that suck!" and similar variants, but overall it was an atmosphere of achievement and shared triumph.

I left Joe to go back the hotel, where I saw a second consecutive glorious sunset . . . notwithstanding the prosaic highway framing the bottom of the otherwise beautiful scene.  It was a memorable close to a memorable day, for sure.

On Sunday, I drove to the towpath, where I ran 5.5 miles towards the north/northwest before turning around and heading back to the area by the aqueduct where I started.  It was a crisp morning, and it was a lovely run, with the final mile fast as I tried to chase down a runner who stayed just ahead of me.  Despite running close to a 6:00 pace at the end, I still finished behind.


My sister is a psychologist of some public renown, and I posed to her the following:

What does it say about my mental health that I spent over two hours running with a guy who was suffering miserably, then milled about amidst shuffling runners complaining how much their race had sucked, and all I could think about was whether I'd be doing the race in 2011 or 2012?

She replied that that likely encapsulates everything about my psyche which could use some work, but I'm seriously wondering why I'm so drawn to these ultra-runs.  One factor I've realized is that running - and particularly running longer and longer - helps slow down my overactive, unrelenting brain.  Another is that I very much enjoy the experience of pushing to my limits, knowing that almost by definition, each time we reach a current limit (real or perceived), we actually move the line for the next time.  Despite the occasional racing/training plateau, running is a series of steps towards self-improvement, self-realization and towards knowing and understanding our place in the world.  Choosing to run 50 mostly lovely miles with 1000 like-minded folks only reinforces everything that's great about running, at least in my opinion.  It's living life the way we were meant to live it, in motion, with others, striving for more and better.  I hope to be a part of that again soon, and often.

Thanks for reading. -ESG/Ron


Girl In Motion said...

Great post, Ron! Really loved the detail, from the nuts and bolts of the race down the kid talking to the animals. Also, I thought it was super cool that you did this at the last minute and it does say something about you, your involvement and love of the sport. That's partly why you're such a cool dude. :-)

Looking forward to your first Ultra report, which I expect will come in the not-so-distant future.

rovatti said...

One factor I've realized is that running - and particularly running longer and longer - helps slow down my overactive, unrelenting brain.

Nicely put as usual.

Thankfully my overactive brain can be slowed by an 8mile run.


AgileToes said...

It's great reading about the race from the perspective of those who waited around for hours for us to wobble through the aid somehow make it sound like what we did was sane- which again may be a testament to your psyche ;)

It was so great having you there to experience it along with us, and I am so grateful to Mrs. ESG for condoning such spontaneous behavior. I vow to support you when you return to run JFK as a competitor, though I also swear to stop and pet the goats this time. I was very sad that I missed that.