JFK meant a lot, but also not much at all in the grand scheme of my running journey. It wasn’t a PR, it wasn’t a new distance, it wasn’t a hard course, yet it was everything I needed to believe in myself again.
It’s no secret I’ve struggled this past fall. I’m still learning how best my body responds to training, nutrition and everything else that comes with becoming an ultra-runner. I have to admit, although I will do my best to remain positive about things, running has been hard emotionally and physically. In short, it sucked more times than it was blissful, but I kept at it because I know these kind of things happen.
I signed up for JFK months ago thinking it would be my big race of the year. It still was, however I wanted to be more prepared for it. Actually, I wanted to be prepared at all, but it wasn’t in the cards this time. I tried my best to get up some mileage after my month healing from injury in September. However, that’s what it was, I just ran regularly, easy, and tried to work on the things I could. Relax about it, eat enough, do my best to cope with the depressive symptoms that would follow when I admitted that JFK was not going to happen.
However, with each week, I felt better and started to trust my body again. I didn’t feel like I creeping around on runs trying not to break. I started to relax and enjoy the process and simply let go. I did one 20 miler a few weeks ago and it went really well. That solidified JFK in my mind. I would go, I would start, and I would try.
I wish I could say I believed in myself at that point. Things got better, but I had a lingering doubt that would not go away. It would take a lot more than positive self talk to get it to leave, I had to prove it.
So here we are, two days post JFK. I have completed my first van trip. I hurt in all the places. My hunger is ravenous, yet many times after and before eating I feel sick. If I could do one thing for the rest of my life, I would foam roll my calves because they are so tight. I fucking love it because I earned it.
Getting to the high school in Boonsboro, MD was pretty uneventful. The day prior I was able to talk through all my fears and worries with my good friend Rich Heffron and he was very comforting. I was able to tell him, a bit bashfully, that I was ok if I DNFed. I wanted to start and see how far I got. I am not someone who can just do a random 50 miler. It takes so much out of me, both physically and emotionally. I admitted I really, really, REALLY wanted to finish, and I would be sad if I didn’t, but I was not putting my body in a position to be injured for an extended period of time. If I needed to stop, I would stop. He was very understanding, supportive of my decision and just made my feelings valid. Thank you Rich, your words helped me each time I wanted to quit. I had given myself permission to do so and nothing was wrong with that.
I got to packet pick up, knew no one there, and left without any fanfare, just the way I like it. I went back to my van, went to the high school where the race was starting, talked to my sister and fell asleep.
The race began at 6:30AM a little walk from where we all had gathered for the pre-race briefing. Actually I have no idea if I started when the gun sounded because most of us were still walking there.
I felt oddly shaky during the first few miles, my pants kept falling down and I really wondered if I was doing the right thing. I had to use the bathroom a few times and at mile 5, it was (honest to God) the first time (of many) I considered stopping. Really. At mile 5. Of a 50 mile race. This is not an ideal scenario. However, I tried not to think about it, figure out my pants situation and try not to fall on the Appalachian Trail.
The first 15.5 miles were beautiful, if rocky terrain. It reminded me of Escarpment, but not as bad. One thing that kept me going here was not falling and realizing I was running terrain this much better than I had back in July. Small wins I suppose. At about mile 8 I realized I had yet to start eating or drinking, so I put my focus into that. I decided I would try to eat something with each buzz (mile marker) on my watch. This also might be why I was going to the bathroom more than I’d have liked. Hydration helps digestion.
At mile 12 I had another one of the episodes where I thought about dropping. It was a particularly rocky section and I stubbed my toe so badly, I thought I broke it. Even the guy behind me told me I should get it looked at. However, I didn’t fall, so I kept going and just like that, we got off the AT and I was ready to actually run.
I got going at a good clip, ate more of my shot blocks (salted watermelon forever) and had a good 2 miles. Then another down moment happened and I started to get some weird lower back pain. I straightened up and it went away, but the dark thoughts were back. I made it to an aid station around mile 18, and this is where I changed.
The aid station was manned by a XC team, and they had the most beautiful cookies I had ever seen. Seriously, they were professionally down. I ate one there and asked if they would be at the finish line. They said no, and I thought it would be a shame if I didn’t grab more because I love eating beautiful food, it’s fun and makes me smile. So I grabbed, a lot, of cookies, stuffing them in my bottle pouch and carrying them. I don’t know what it was, the sugar, the beautiful appearance or just the kindness of the aid station, but mentally I shifted. I started offering cookies to runners I passed. I was in pain and doubtful, but I started to let go, I started to run free, I started to believe in why I was running here. I want to finish and I want to run for a long time. I stopped caring about not living up to potential. I stopped worrying about anything other than moving forward and being the kind of runner I want to see out there on the trail. I got into a sort of flow, but it wasn’t a runner’s high. It was still painful, but I accepted the pain and let it come with me. I guess it would be more like a grind. I started grinding, putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.
At this point, I started running with another guy named Scott, who made miles 20-30 an absolute blast. Both of us were relative newbies (his first, my second) and still figuring things out. We talked, we connected and it was just what I needed. So often, I crave alone time. I enjoy it actually as I’ve written before. Today though, I needed other people. Other positive people, suffering together, but also finding beauty in the suffering.
“The loneliest you will ever feel is when in need. Whether from pain of an injury, cold or hunger, you will feel at your most lonely, most insignificant when you are away from people and in need” – Aleks Kashefi
At about mile 30, Scott and I split up as he needed a bit more aid at the station than I did. I caught up to two other guys, Lou and Tom (I think) and ran with them for the next 10ish. During those miles, I had a few more low moments, but just having them there and talking with them made them not seem so bad. I stopped doubting my ability to finish. I just knew some miles would be more painful than others.
I forgot to mention that it began raining when I got off the AT and onto the tow path, which then turned into freezing rain and wind at points. That may have caused a few low moments, but actually I found a great strategy of putting the noodle soup in my handheld bottle and then eating bars which balanced my electrolytes. The soup was warm which was such a blessing out there. I didn’t realize how cold it was and might have avoided the hypothermia others suffered. I’ll definitely take that strategy into my next ultra.
The last 8 miles of the course were on the road. Miles 42-44 were kind of a battle as I felt like I was so close, yet so far. The road opened up and it actually felt like home. At mile 44, a man told me “it’s ok, less than a 10K to go!” They also were playing Christmas music and I had a cup of hot cocoa. I’d had it. I picked it up because damn it, I know how to run on the road. Those last miles might have been my fastest and I passed 10 people. I was just ready to be done. Not because it was freezing cold, I was tired and I missed my sister, but because when I crossed that finish line, I knew I would believe in myself again. I could call myself and ultrarunner and believe it.
I finished the race somewhere around 8:06 and change. A long day that exposed my lack of specific fitness, my mental and emotional demons and had terrible weather. A race I told myself I could DNF and it would be completely justified. A race I didn’t believe was possible just a few weeks before. I finished.
Special thanks to my sister Laurel, my mom and dad, Ian Golden, Rich Heffron, my coworkers from CTB, Amelia Kauffman (who raced as well), and my wonderful roommate and friend Lesley, who has seen me through the injuries and believed in me when I couldn’t walk.