Thursday, November 25, 2010

Epic Battle At JFK

I signed up for the JFK 5o miler last July, while I was still in a post-Western States stupor. Somehow, I got this silly idea that JFK would make the perfect race trifecta along with American River 50 and Western States - the two biggest ultras in the country and the most prestigious - which is how I found myself on the Maryland starting line last weekend.

Last minute entrants Jill Perry and Amy Sproston beefed up the competition on the women's side, but I didn't think that they would detract from my main goals, which were 1) PR at 50 miles (AR50 = 7:14); 2) get a 100k World Championship qualifier (sub- 7:15); and 3) place top 5 ("in the money"). I didn't really expect to be in the hunt for the win.

It was a bit chilly at the start, but on the whole it was perfect weather for an ultra. The course starts with 2.5 miles of uphill road before hitting the Appalacian Trail. I started nice and slow and could see Jill, Amy, USA 24 hour team member Ana Piskorska, and several other women out ahead of me. I passed Ana before hitting the trail, but anther woman in a shimmel and spanks moved ahead of me.

I caught up with Jill right before the first aid station and stayed to chat with her a bit before moving on. At the aid station (mile 4) I hit the port-a-potties, so had to repass Jill a short bit later.

The AT was everything everyone promised: leaves, roots and LOTS of rocks! It made for some awkward footing at times, but I just tried to stay as smooth as possible. Around mile 7 somebody yelled at me,"7th Woman." Within the next mile I passed Spanks-girl on a rocky uphill section and fell in with a couple of guys for the rest of the AT.
The Appalacian Trail (Brightroom, Inc. photo)

I was using Greg Crowther's split's from 2009 (plus 1.5 minutes/mile) for an estimated finish of 7:06. I came off the AT at 2:24, 3 minutes ahead of schedule.
The splits (in case I was too boneheaded to remember three numbers!)

Next was the 26.3 mile long tow path section. I was expecting this to suck, because everybody said it was flat and boring. Somehow, I assumed this meant "straight" and I just envisioned running down a dirt road where you could see for miles. But the path had a thick layer of leaves and lots of curves. It wasn't exactly a surprise around every bend, but it was enough to keep it from being boring.

I immediately joined up with Doug, a member of the Air Force from DC who was running his first 50 miler. We ran together for the first 10 miles and I really enjoyed his company, maybe a bit too much as we were doing 7:20's (Garmin pace) and I didn't think I should be going faster than 7:30's. But I was feeling great at that point and my handsome military companion kept giving me compliments, so why would I want to part from him?? You gotta love a guy who thinks I look too young to have a six year old. Also, you gotta think he needs glasses!

I told Doug I thought I was in 6th and he was surprised as he didn't think that many women were ahead of me. Our clip kept us moving past people and he was always pointing out the women ahead and trying to guess which ones were early starters before we caught up to them. But in addition to the early starters, we passed three of the front running women and I knew none of them would be giving chase.

Doug left me at mile 25 to change his shoes and so I finally slowed it down into the high 7:30's. That's probably where I should have been from the beginning but it is so easy to get pulled along when you are feeling good. I was still feeling pretty good, but I noticed that after mile 28 I was watching for the mile markers and counting down how many miles left on the tow path. That's always one of the first signs of tiredness for me when I start thinking about what I have left instead of just running or staying focused in the now. But my pace didn't really falter and by mile 34 I realized I only had to do 8:30 miles for the rest of the race to come in under 7:15 and that made me feel pretty confident. Also, several people were telling me I was second female, one place higher than I thought, so that was a nice boost, too.

Cruising the Tow Path (Brightroom, Inc. photo)

Between mile 34 and mile 38, David Horton came riding by on bike. He introduced himself and gave me an update on the race. Basically, he told me I was all by myself in second, several minutes behind Amy and almost ten minutes up on third. Around that time I noticed my pace slipping into the 7:40's and I pretty much resigned myself to second. You can't make up time if you are slowing down now, can you?

At mile 38, I was sad to see Jill on the sidelines from a foot injury, but it was nice to have her energy. She was cheering and screaming for me and told me I was just a few minutes behind Amy. I figured she was exaggerating to keep my motivation up and I didn't really take her seriously. I just kept on at my pace, still figuring second place was my lot for the day. But when I turned off the AT two guys were cheering and saying that I was only one minute behind, that I could catch her. And on the turn ahead I could see Amy so I know that they weren't lying! Oh, man, time to dig deep!

The road section seemed a lot hillier than I am sure it actually was and we had a pretty good headwind, plus I was tired, so these miles were slower than the tow path miles, but I was closing on Amy, ever so gradually, just as you are supposed to do.

I came into the mile 46 aid station just as she was getting ready to leave. In terms of race strategy and tactical maneuvering, this is where I made my fatal error. In retrospect, I should have skipped the Aid Station and left in step with her, but I am not good with fast decisions and I am not used to thinking about "going for the kill." Mostly, I just run and if I am running faster than someone I pass them without thinking about it. I was filled with uncertainty and doubt and my energy was flagging big time. At the time I felt like it would be a good idea to get in a few more calories to keep my energy up till the finish, so I stopped. But realistically, how much good did 3 ounces of Coke do me??

When I came in I also said something to Amy about being so tired...What was I thinking?!? I watched the World Series of Poker, so I should know - YOU ALWAYS BLUFF! Make 'em think you've got the nuts even when you've got rags! I've got to learn to play some mental games!

Amy immediately took off. She had been told she had a good lead and I am pretty sure my presence gave her a good boost of adrenaline and gave her some extra motivation. She opened up about a 20 second lead right out of the aid station. I kept telling myself only four more miles, push the uphills, work the downs, but Amy seemed to be doing the same. She looked back a couple of times, so I know she was worried, but it didn't matter, I seemed to stay the exact same distance behind the whole time.

Several people have said to me that they wish they could have seen the finish of our race, but the finish wasn't exciting... The race was over at mile 46. Amy crossed the line in 6:57:16; I finished in 6:57:37. (Doug finished his first 50 in 7:06!)

Finally-the finish! (Brightroom, Inc. photo)

Amy looked totally dazed at the end. I didn't think I was doing too badly, until I walked over to the medal table to ask for my finisher's reward. The lady very kindly pointed out that I was already wearing one. Not only was I oblivious to the huge hunk of metal hanging from my neck, but I somehow didn't even notice that somebody had slipped this thing over my head! The lady then left her post, saying "why don't I walk you into the gym?" I guess I was looking pretty toasted!

Admittedly, I was kind of disappointed after the race and kind of pissed at myself. I felt like I had her and she got away. I made up at least a seven minute gap and then fell 21 seconds short. 21 SECONDS AFTER 50 MILES!! Come on!

But JFK has a wonderful race director in Mike Spinnler. At the awards ceremony, he really put things in perspective. Not only did he emphasize how fortunate we were to be there running in a free country thanks to the sacrifices of our military, but he also had an emotionally stirring account about the race between me and Amy: (to paraphrase)

"This was the closest race in the history of JFK, not the closest women's race, but the closest race ever. These two women pushed each other so much and to see them finish was truly inspiring because they were both totally and completely spent. It was obvious they had given it their all and raced their guts out. This was like a prize fight between Mohammed Ali and Evander Holyfield, only these two went at it for 50 rounds, completely beating each other up.

In these duals somebody has to come out the champion, but these ladies are both winners. In the end they finished only 21 seconds apart and both broke the 7 hour mark, something only 5 other women have done here."

I was practically in tears by the end of that! It certainly helped me to see the day for the great race that it was. I may have made a mistake or two on the course, but I really did give it my all and I never gave up. I didn't get the win but I PR'd by 17 minutes, I ran the 9th fastest women's time ever at JFK, I broke 7 hours and I got a qualifier for the 100k World Championships in Holland next year! As the saying goes, winning isn't everything, right?

Congrats to all the finishers and especially to Amy, because I know I made her earn it!