A week ago today, around this time, I was in the Appalachian Trail, either run-walking up or flying down the beautiful downhills.
But before that even happened, I must say, I came to JFK 50 with fear. I have run and finished 2 50-milers before and I knew I CAN FINISH 50 miles. But then, as the cliché goes, no 2 races are the same. JFK 50 has a 12-hour cut-off for those starting at 0700 and 14 for those toeing the line at 0500. So far, one of those 2 50 miles I’ve done, I finished under 12 hours. But that was at Beast of Burden, which was flat as a runway. The other, TARC 50, I finished at 15 hours and 50 minutes of running, after I got lost at mile 48.5 or 49, sat, cried, and then given the chance to finish. So technically, I didn’t have a good history to bank on. On one hand, I thought that while BoB was flat, it was cold, I had my period, and went to the bathroom a million times. So maybe, there was hope that I can actually finish under the cut-off.
Still, the assurance was not enough. I freaked out.
And then, there were the whys. Why did I let Stalina talk me into this? Why did I even think I could do it?
My husband ran it last year and finished under 9 hours but that was him. Why did I even think I could do it? Or may be I could. But then, wait, was I even trained enough? Not in my opinion.
Since TARC in June, I had 2 DNFs. Two 50Ks— what would’ve supposedly been “training runs.” One, a week after TARC (who was I kidding?) and the other, in October. So talk about confidence. Then, I guess all the other “trainings” involved running some “hills” in Central Park, walking on 35-40% incline in our treadmill, probably 1 back-to-back 16- and 11-milers, and Steamtown Marathon followed by a 10-miler the next day. The only other essential part in my so-called training was trying to train/run on empty. So far, I’ve only managed running without nutrition or hydration for the longest distance of 10 miles. So was I ready? Not exactly. But I had to convince myself I was.
Fast-forward, November 21 came. With my family, we packed 2 more runner-friends, Stalina and Juliette, in our car and headed to Hagerstown. I was thankful the husband came because I could not imagine driving a day after the race. That Friday, we picked up our bibs at a hotel after eating Thai food. Then at dinner, we headed to Ledo’s Pizza (and their pizza was awesome!) where I had the quasi-mandatory dinner of vegan pizza and pasta. I swore I’d never eat that much before. Following dinner, we readied in our room. I skipped the FlatKat, the “traditional” laying down of race attire for photo-ops. I was scared as f#ck that might jinx me.
Then fast-forward race day November 22.
I had a good night’s sleep. When I woke, I had coffee and a wonderful bathroom visit.
It was a cold morning. There were frostings on cars at the parking lot. I was wearing shorts. I had settled on a long-sleeved tech shirt with my Trail WhippAss (my running team) singlet over it. But I’ve also a loose tech running shirt over it for throw-away, then my Ultimate Direction Jenny vest.
After a quick stay in the gym for some last minute race announcements, we were heading out to the start. Jun’s (the husband) last words to me in our dialect “Don’t DNF.” Boom.
Gun went off just right after I used the porta-john, where I actually tripped and hurt my ankle.
Just as expected, it was crowded, but that was good. With over a thousand (?) runners, I figured I could never be the last person.
The first five miles were just relentless uphill on pavement. As soon as I heard a volunteer say “last uphill and you’ll be in the AT,” my eyes lit up. That trek uphill ate up so much of my time.
Soon enough we hit the AT.
I had to make a mental note about what how my ultrarunner, badass friend, Elaine Acosta told me to go slow in the AT, because per her experience, she was fascinated with it that she ran too fast and bonked in the towpath. But that wasn’t a problem for me; I can’t run fast, anyway.
But yes it was beautiful. I managed to run smarter, walking the uphills mostly. (I have been warned by a random runner and Jun to not run the uphills because they burn me out but I feel I can run better uphill than walking uphill.) Then I made up for time by running downhills, even in the most technical ones and along the switchback. At one point I twisted my ankle really bad and heard a snap and I was worried for a while but that didn’t do harm.
The AT was a beauty. Unfortunately, we only had about 9 miles of it. I have memories of the picture-perfect scenery but only in my mind because I turned my phone off to fight the temptation to take pictures.
It was sad when the run along the AT ended. I especially loved the view that overlooked the river when we started the switchbacks and the AS by the rails where we actually had to stop for about 5 mins for a cargo train to cross. But I didn’t really stop long in these ASs as I was constantly making sure I had enough time. I breezed through them just to get water to mix with my Drip Drop and a spare bottle to drink. Other than that, all I picked up at the AS spread apart were 2 PB&J Uncrustables and 4 pretzel sticks. Other nutrition only composed of 2 dates and 4 or 5 V-Fuel, which I took along the way.
Finally, we hit the 26-mile stretch of the towpath, almost flat as a pancake. Contrary, however, to the Beast, at least, there was some fall foliage to see. Fine. I’ll take that.
So it was the most boring part of the race. I was dragging my feet. I was only thankful I was wearing my Hoka One One Clifton as they were the lightest bunch. I also had to make sure I relaxed my hips because more than the legs and feet, they are the first to give up. But boy, did that hurt. Same muscles for 26 miles. But then again, if there was one thing I learned from pacing Gerald in Badwater 135 in the middle of the night going up Cerro Gordo, pain has its limits. You can always push past the pain. Because if it didn’t have a limit, the pain scale that we often use at work would not be a scale of 1-10.
A lot of things go on in your mind when you’re running 50.2 miles. Especially for a back-of-the-packer like me. Because that’s a verrrry looongg time. But the goal is to stay away from surrendering.
On the towpath, mind wandered from where my ovaries are relative to the fact that since they’re no longer anchored to a fallopian tube and/or uterus, where could they be? Are they bouncing like me? That question kept me going for quite a bit. Then there were thoughts of inspirational words I had received days leading up to the race like “Believe” and “Have Faith” from 2 of the best ultrarunner friends I know, Stephen Bandfield and Paul De Nunzio. And everytime my mind went off on a tangent, I had to override it with some thought I had from Michele Yates’ interview: stay focused.
I would also discover, my GPS was off by close to a mile at this point. And I had 2 Garmins on. My old 910xt was the one I relied on, as my 620 stupidly did not start until 8 minutes into the race. I had calculated my pace to never exceed 14:11-min/mi if I wanted to make it to the cut-off. But with a GPS reading that was skewed, it was hard to say what my actual pace was. So I mostly relied at elapsed time.
And of course, there were cut-offs I had written on my arm and covered with tegaderm. They came in handy. And yes, I only looked up and found out about the cut-offs the night before. And that’s when I freaked out. This is one bad habit I need to overcome: I don’t read instructions.
I had about an hour of buffer on the first cut-off time, even with all the walking that happened the first 5 miles. But the numbers just thinned out as the day went on.
Then boom, we were nearing mile-38, where, in my opinion, the strictest cut-off was. For some reason, nearing it, my GPS said we were close to mile-38, even with the GPS being inaccurate. But behold, we almost didn’t make it past that Aid Station.
The volunteer there blurted out “even if you continue now, you will not make it to the next cut-offs.” This, even with 3 hours to spare to finish 12 miles. For some reason unknown, or may it was exhaustion, I almost quit and call Jun to come pick me up. But for some reason, as well, I felt lazy about taking my phone out and thought that if I stayed, I would be cold. Stalina, my Russian friend, was feisty enough to talk me out of it, so we, along with 2 others went for the last 13.2 miles. Of course, I was a bit miserable when we left because I didn’t realize until later that in our haste, we had not gotten water. I only had about 6 ounces left. Good job.
And then, Stalina left me. And I couldn’t find her. Without looking at the cut-off chart on my arm, part of me thought that I may not make it to the next AS on time. I only remembered Stalina saying the night before that the last 12 miles of the whole 50.2 will be like doing negative splits, aka running for your life. While you are exhausted.
So I took my time, took my dates from the back of my pack, and ate those 2 dates. “Ahhh… Real food, finally.” In my not-so-hasty trek, I was surprised that after only 2.8 miles, there was another AS not far ahead. In my mind I was saying “Wait, what? 3 miles with an hour to work on?” I crossed that AS with about 10 minutes to cut-off and that was with walking. This time, I had more FAITH and I BELIEVED more that I could actually do it. My friend, Stephen, told me to have the same faith when I ran Steamtown Marathon where I PR’d by 15 minutes. My faith resurrected and I knew at that point finishing was possible.
I was just 9 miles away and I think it was when we were donned the “vest of shame,” the vest that was to protect us in the next 9.2 miles because we were running on a road with actual traffic. But I didn’t mind that. I figured way before that if wearing the vest of shame meant I would finish, then so be it. I wore it with pride. And well, with my headlamp.
Again, I was reminded by what Elaine had said about how the last 9 miles are helpful because while it was rolling, you gain time in the downhills. So that was what I exactly did. I walked some incline and just ran the downhills. Ran some inclines and ran some downhills. Repeating the pattern in the next miles.
Along the line, it got a bit tricky staying safe. Because we were in a highway or main road, there were no shoulders to work on. In some areas, I actually had to stop because there were trucks coming and there was nowhere to run. But then knowing there were other runners made me feel safer. And I met John the Irish (I would find out his name after from Paul Grassie). He kept on giving encouraging words about how we were almost there. This went on for a few miles. And finally, when we hit the mile-44 (or 46?), I heard someone say “boiled potatoes.” I found that ridiculous because I have been looking for potatoes all day and never saw any. Now seriously, what will boiled potatoes do for me at the end of the race? So I brushed it off.
Finally, I hit the last few miles and there were mile markers, counting down. I could already smell the finish. And my family’s stench of fear that I may not have finished. Haha. It was also at this point I heard Mr. Incredible, on his bike, playing a boom box. “September” was playing. My heart was racing and when he was finally beside me, I asked him if he was the sweeper. He laughed at that and said “No! There are actually about 25 runners behind you” and he biked along.
I lost John the Irish somewhat and I had a sudden surge of energy as I passed some runners infront. I finally caught Stalina, who I saw had to do a double take and say“Oh, my god. I’m happy you made it.” I went and ran and at this point, I saw my pace was still under 14. But I knew that was no longer accurate because when we almost stopped at Taylor’s Landing, I paused my watch and we stayed there for 5 minutes. So literally, I didn’t have much time left. So I just ran, passing a few more runners. Until that final left turn on the highway where I was finally told the finish was waiting.
Sure enough, I saw the blown-up arch that said finish. It was slightly under 12 hours at this point but I was happy. I heard my name as I was approaching the finish. And I heard one of the announcers congratulating runners. The same announcer I heard talking last year, when Jun and finished.
I found myself making the sign of the cross and thanking God and thanking the Holy Spirit for helping me through it. The same way I had been praying so hard to just be guided in the past 50 miles, to know when to run, to pause, and to run again.
And with the intention to be photographed with my Trail WhippAss singlet, I took the vest of shame off about .1 mile away. And a few feet from the final timing mat, I saw Jun and Mariska and I jumped what was supposedly my jumping pic (unfortunately Jun missed it). And in Maggie Guterl’s words, I “pranced” to the finish.
Oh, my Lord. The clock read 11 hours 48 minutes something. I survived JFK 50. I finished under 12 hours!
It was one of the happiest finishes in my life.
I was ecstatic. I received my medal and then ran to the side to see Stalina finish and some other runners finish. Just like we all do in Ultras. But we had to walk out of the finish before the 12-hour mark sounded off. It was cold and I didn’t think I could handle seeing runners not making it to the cut-off. That would break my heart. But I’m not quite sure if anyone did not.
So I survived JFK 50. My thoughts and fear of having bought a JFK 50 hoodie and magnetic car sticker dissipated.
Sure enough, by the time we reached the public school cafeteria, there were no more ramen noodles. Back-of-the-packer problems. But who cares? I could very well survive the next days with just the runners’ high.
In retrospect, JFK 50 was a journey, a reflection. This is why I run ultras or why I sometimes DNF ultras. In my own twisted thinking, it is the experience that matters. When you’re happy or in pain but are able to digest things in life. Because if you can’t do that, then what’s the point?
Run careless. Run free.